DRAMA

UPN (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

[STARS 2.5]

Babe-magnet bachelor and hotshot lawyer Kevin Hill (Brown Sugar's Taye Diggs) enjoys the good life in New York City. Let's build a TV show around him. No, wait—the character has to be more grounded. Give him a kid, but don't tie him down with a wife. How's this? He inherits a baby!

Hollywood loves to drop children into the lives of selfish singles, whether by inheritance (Diane Keaton in the '80s hit Baby Boom, Kate Hudson in this year's Raising Helen) or the old bundle-on-the-doorstep trick (recall Three Men and a Baby, which gets a joking reference in the Kevin Hill pilot). But I wish there were a tad more originality in the first series vehicle for the handsome and engaging Diggs.

Naturally, Kevin protests when he's handed his dead cousin's 10-month-old daughter in the Sept. 29 premiere. Soon, though, adorable Sarah steals his heart, and Kevin quits the firm when his boss suggests that work should come before baby. Where does the lawyer land? At a formerly all-female firm run by a gorgeous, understanding single mom (Michael Michele from ER). On his first case Kevin joins forces with a hot colleague he once bedded (Kate Levering), and they champion the cause of a client who says she was sexually assaulted by a famous athlete. "This ain't a Lifetime movie," Kevin reminds the legal team. No, but it's pretty close. All that can save it is a star performance that out- shines the script, and Diggs answers the call with charm, charisma and sexy confidence tempered by a touch of vulnerability. Now somebody please tell the writers that Kevin is too smart to be so thrown by the simple fact that Sarah's new nanny (Patrick Breen) is gay.

DRAMA

HBO (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET)

[STARS 3.5]

Gritty and engrossing as ever, this police drama widens its sights in its third season, which opened Sept. 19. Now the subject is not just the grinding struggle against drugs or the steady decline of the working class but also the politics and power structure of the city.

Detectives Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) haven't lost their zeal to bring down the Barksdale drug gang, which Stringer Bell (coolly menacing Idris Elba) tries to run on sound business principles and Robert's Rules of Order. But the re-election-minded mayor (Glynn Turman) and acting police commissioner (Frankie Faison) are more intent on doctoring the city's crime statistics to keep an ambitious councilman (Aidan Gillen) from scoring political points.

The strongest new regular is "Bunny" Colvin (quietly convincing Robert Wisdom), a high-ranking cop determined to give his career meaning as he nears retirement. Sad-eyed and world-weary but still harboring hope, Colvin starts questioning the assumptions of the drug war and going his own way. This man could be a danger to the system.

COMEDY

ABC (Fridays, 8:30 p.m. ET)

[STARS 2]

When 15-year-old Chris Savage (Erik von Detten) wants to torment one of his younger brothers, he shouts, "You're going in the pit!" and puts him in a headlock. The victim then finds out firsthand how well Chris's deodorant is working.

Before you dismiss this as a juvenile stunt, know that Chris's father, fireman Nick (Keith Carradine), deals out the same pit punishment later in the Sept. 24 premiere. It's a guy thing, like the whole show. The opener—directed none too subtly by Mel Gibson, one of the executive producers and a father of seven—establishes that Nick and his five sons have been on their own since his wife left 10 years ago. The Savage boys don't pine for Mom, though. When they get too rowdy, Dad threatens to "get your mother back here," and they pipe down pronto.

The opener offers a few laughs, as Dad refuses to hire a new housekeeper and the boys become bigger slobs than usual. But it won't be long before this show desperately needs a civilizing female presence. Maybe ABC can lure Brady Bunch maid Alice out of retirement.

DRAMA

CBS (Sun., Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET)

[STARS 2]

This show isn't content just to reach base the first time up. It strains itself swinging for the fences.

In the premiere (airing two nights before the series steps into its Tuesday-at-9 lineup spot), 16-year-old Pete (Jeremy Sumpter from Peter Pan) starts work as a batboy for the big-league New York Empires without the permission of his no-nonsense single mom (Mare Winningham), who has no clue that he's on the field for the opening-day game. Hard to believe? Sure, but we're willing to play along because Pete seems like a nice kid and the show promises to be a wholesome diversion. The next day, though, Pete is caught holding an arrogant slugger's steroids, and suddenly the bases are loaded with scandal, moral crisis and melodrama.

Clubhouse may jell once Pete builds friendships with the Empires' sterling third baseman (Dean Cain) and crusty equipment manager (Christopher Lloyd). But credibility has to be part of the game plan.

REALITY

ABC (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET)

[STARS 2]

In case you care, ABC announced this series for its fall schedule before FOX hurried Trading Spouses onto the air during the summer.

Now how do the family-switch shows compare? Wife Swap is better in at least one respect: Each trade is covered in one episode, not dragged out over two. Also, the ABC series can claim a certain moral superiority on the basis that participating families do not receive a cash prize. But with no reward besides fleeting fame, what rational person would want to go through domestic upheaval merely for viewers' amusement?

In the Sept. 29 premiere (following what ABC calls a preview episode Sept. 26 at 10), idle-rich Manhattanite Jodi changes places for two weeks with school-bus driver Lynn, a rural New Jerseyan who does all the cooking and cleaning for her husband and two daughters when she's not out chopping wood. At first the show treats Jodi's new situation like Paris Hilton Goes to Podunk, but things get heavy when she has a shrieking fight with Lynn's husband, Brad. Then Jodi and Brad suddenly start liking each other. Meantime, Lynn tries to get Jodi's busy husband, Steve, to notice his three kids. Valuable lessons are learned by all, but in a way that almost seems—perish the thought—scripted.

Charmed (WB, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET) Once a demon hunter on Angel, Charisma Carpenter switches sides and turns up here as an evil seer.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (ABC, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET) Eight is enough, all right. In the two-hour season premiere, Ty Pennington's team expands the home of a widower with that many kids.

Fashion Rocks (FOX, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET) Beyoncé, Usher and Alicia Keys perform, and Denis Leary plays host, in a special celebrating our passion for music and fashion.

7th Heaven (WB, Sept. 27, 8 p.m. ET) Teen pop idol Aaron Carter guest stars as a foster kid who gets Ruthie's heart racing after she meets him in detention.

Saturday Night Live (NBC, Oct 2, 11:30 p.m. ET) Okay, ease up on the J.Lo jokes. Ben Affleck hosts the season premiere.

  • Contributors:
  • TERRY KELLEHER.