FOX (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

You're James Cameron, you're king of the world. Three years ago you directed Titanic, the highest-grossing movie in history. So how do you top yourself? Well, not by executive-producing this dreary, derivative sci-fi series. Set in Seattle in. 2019 after a terrorist thermonuclear blast has somehow plunged the U.S. into another depression, Dark Angel focuses on an unlikely heroine named Max (Jessica Alba). Bike messenger by day, cat burglar by night, Max never seems to need any sleep. Possibly that's because she's a genetically enhanced superwoman, a fugitive from a top-secret lab who's being hunted by its ruthless security officer (John Savage). Meanwhile, a crusading cyber journalist (Michael Weatherly) wants to turn this Dark Angel into a futuristic Charlie's Angel and help him bring down a corrupt drug tycoon. Seems that among Max's other gifts, she's faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap from tall buildings unharmed and can memorize phone numbers just by hearing them speed-dialed. Such silliness might be palatable if Alba (Never Been Kissed) were more than the sum of her svelte, zippered bodysuits. Instead she pouts throughout, speaking in a Valley Girl drone. FOX has scheduled the two-hour pilot opposite the Oct. 10 presidential debate. But after 10 minutes of Angel, you might vote with your remote and tune in Bush-Gore.

Bottom Line: Iceberg dead ahead!

TNT (Sun., Oct. 8, 8 p.m. ET)

Glenn Close, who has starred in a series of TV movies based on Patricia MacLachlan's family prairie saga Sarah, Plain and Tall, is an executive producer and the narrator of this latest adaptation of a MacLachlan novel, which should have come with a warning label: May induce severe weepiness or impatience. The weepers in the audience will surely be moved by this tale of an abandoned infant left on the front porch of the dysfunctional Malone family. John (Keith Carradine), a Boston journalist who has relocated his urban brood to a picturesque coastal island, wife Lily (Farrah Fawcett), a painter of large abstracts, their preteen daughter Larkin (Alison Pill) and John's mother, Byrd (Jean Stapleton), are still coping with the death months earlier of Larkin's baby brother from a congenital heart defect. "They never even named you," Larkin says to his tombstone, which is simply marked BABY.

So when baby Sophie (so identified in a note attached to the basket) comes into their lives, Larkin feels conflicted. Not so her mom, who wants to keep Sophie, against John's wishes. "She is not a substitute," he says. "No one deserves her more than we do," she counters. You needn't be psychic to guess that the kid stays, or that her presence has a healing effect on the family, or that her birth mother, who keeps mailing letters for Sophie to read someday, will return.

And that's the problem: Baby is too formulaic to evoke genuine feeling. The actors try hard, but as a mother in mourning Fawcett comes across as constricted and cranky. Carradine is likably bland, while Stapleton (the former Edith Bunker) has been typecast as the Endearing Old Codger. Only 15-year-old Pill is convincing as the anguished Larkin, forced to cope with her parents' moodiness and to wrestle with lines like "Everything has a name and a place, even stars."

Bottom Line: Baby, it's lukewarm in here

NBC (Sundays, 8 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

Ed Stevens, the proud new owner of Stuckey Bowl in rustic Stuckeyville, has a question for his three motley employees: "How do we turn a bad bowling alley into a good bowling alley?" Pipes up a slacker named Phil: "Fill the place with whores...I'm talking about nice, friendly, singing kinda whores like in the Dolly Parton movie." Behind that raffish riff one can almost detect the Cheshire-cat grin of David Letter-man, who's one of the executive producers of this amiable send-up of small-town life. Thomas Cavanagh (Providence's dog-obsessed Doug Boyce) is by turns wry and soulful as Ed, a Manhattan lawyer who got fired the same day he found his wife in bed with their mailman. Back in his hometown, Ed gamely risks rejection again by courting Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen), the head cheerleader who barely knew he existed at Stuckeyville High and who now teaches English there. In the Oct. 8 opener, Ed lurches into her classroom clad in a suit of armor and bearing a bouquet.

Their blossoming romance is smartly played, but there are goofier diversions in town—like the bowling alley, where Ed decides to hang his shingle. This gives him midwestern exposure to a fount of flaky clients, including (in the Oct. 15 episode) Stuckeyville Stan (Eddie Bracken), a children's party magician who can make a frozen turkey dance and household items disappear ("Goodbye, Mr. Spatula!"). Here's hoping Mr. Ed and his friends enjoy a long stay in prime time.

Bottom Line: Letterman-perfect delivery

CBS (Fridays, 9 p.m. ET)

"I have a warrant for your toenails," a forensics specialist (William Petersen) informs a suspect in the Oct. 6 premiere of this drama series. Now there's a line you won't hear on just any old cop show. The Las Vegas police officers of C.S.I. (Crime Scene Investigators) collect and analyze physical evidence, rather than chasing, punching or shooting bad guys. Not that violence and sleaze are neglected. The pilot uses lurid flashbacks to reconstruct the felonies.

A droll Petersen and dependable Marg Helgenberger head the competent cast, and the opener is offbeat enough to stimulate curiosity. But please don't overdo the camera tricks. I could have skipped that trip down the hole in a dead man's chest.

Bottom Line: Case remains open

>Sunday, Oct. 8 PETER PAN A & E (8 p.m. ET) She's flying! Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby reprises her 1998-99 Broadway stint as that Neverland lad.

Monday, Oct. 9 DRUG WARS PBS (9 p.m. ET) This Frontline two-parter (concluding Tuesday) scores interviews with both narcs and traffickers.

Tuesday, Oct. 10 GIDEON'S CROSSING ABC (10 p.m. ET) André Braugher changes careers and locales—from Baltimore Homicide cop to Boston hospital doc.

Wednesday, Oct. 11 BETTE CBS (8 p.m. ET) Ms. Midler makes her sitcom debut as a married diva and mama.

Thursday, Oct. 12 FRIENDS NBC (8 p.m. ET) Chandler and Monica's engagement is upstaged in the season opener by a Ross-loves-Rachel revival.

Friday, Oct. 13 JAKOB THE LIAR Cinemax (6:30 p.m. ET) Robin Williams does his Roberto Benigni turn in this 1999 film set in the Warsaw ghetto in WWII.

Saturday, Oct. 14 SECRET LIFE OF THE FAMILY TLC (10 p.m. ET) Big Brother wasn't enough for you? Meet the Bentalls, a London household under 24/7 surveillance.

  • Contributors:
  • Mike Lipton,
  • Terry Kelleher.