NBC, Sept. 17, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT |

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Joel McHale, the zippy and sarcastic host of E!'s Talk Soup, heads a terrific ensemble that happens to include Chevy Chase, unexpectedly but almost endearingly befuddled as an odd old duck who made a fortune inventing disposable wipes. NBC's best new fall series, this sitcom is about a group of community-college students whose backgrounds are both unusual (McHale is a lawyer who got in trouble for not disclosing that his Columbia degree was really from Colombia) and familiar (Donald Glover, a former 30 Rock writer and expert scene stealer, plays a onetime star athlete). The writing and acting are fluid, light and funny. One quibble: McHale needs to get beneath his veneer of glib, superior cool—he's like Chevy Chase from long, long ago.

FX, Sept. 17, 10 p.m. ET/PT |

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I didn't like this grubby sitcom when it began in '05. But grubbiness can grow on you, especially if the gags are truly off-the-wall. A typical season 5 episode opens with two of the show's barfly lowlifes arguing whether it's legal to keep hummingbirds as pets. Then someone comes up with the idea of posing as good-cop/bad-cop Realtors named Honey and Vinegar. Danny DeVito, as the bar owner, rolls in and out like a bowling ball—a guaranteed noisemaker.

>1 TRUE BLOOD'S BITER END SUN. 9/13 9 P.M. HBO Season 2 finale. Can Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer stop an ancient monster?

2 GOSSIP GIRL MON. 9/14 9 P.M. CW A new season finds Blair (Leighton Meester) lovin' that well-dressed fungus Chuck (Ed Westwick).

3 EARLIER BIRD MON. 9/14 10 P.M. NBC The five-nights-a-week Jay Leno Show launches in prime time. First guest: Jerry Seinfeld.

4 VH1 DIVAS THURS. 9/17 9 P.M. VH1 Adele, Kelly Clarkson (right), Leona Lewis and Miley Cyrus sing. Paula Abdul, beloved anti-diva, is host.

5 ALMA AWARDS FRI. 9/18 8 P.M. ABC Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria Parker hosts, along with George Lopez.

>• Tom Gliatto picks his favorites in the big categories of TV's annual awards extravaganza, which airs on CBS Sept. 20, 8 p.m. ET/PT.

ACTOR, DRAMA MICHAEL C. HALL DEXTER Showtime's lovable serial killer is a hard enough role, but Dexter actually evolved into decent husband material.

COMEDY THE OFFICE Season 5 of the NBC sitcom was a crazily coherent patchwork: corporate intrigue, romantic nuance and the best cat joke I've ever seen.

ACTRESS, DRAMA ELISABETH MOSS MAD MEN Ambitious copywriter Peggy Olson is arguably a supporting part, but no one else on AMC's cult hit comes close to Moss in crystallizing the show's tone: a dissatisfied sleepwalk through that dream era, the early 1960s.

ACTOR, COMEDY JIM PARSONS THE BIG BANG THEORY As supergeek Sheldon Cooper on the CBS sitcom, he has the strange looming gangliness of a stork and delivers one-liners with laser accuracy. He could be the love child of Don Knotts and Allison Janney.

REALITY SHOW AMERICAN IDOL The singing is almost beside the point. What other reality show so dominates the cultural conversation as this FOX hit? Such divisive responses to flamboyant Adam Lambert! Even post-season, everyone's tracking Paula Abdul's moves on Twitter.

DRAMA, BIG LOVE HBO's superb series about polygamists hit its stride in season 3—gripping, funny—as warfare within a fundamentalist sect exploded. It was The Sopranos in long cotton frocks.

ACTRESS, COMEDY MARY-LOUISE PARKER WEEDS The trick to her bravura performance on the Showtime series, which just ended season 5, is that she approaches the role as if she were up to her neck in classic drama. Her Nancy Botwin, whose life is a string of near-disasters, is a complete original: a bitter romantic.

>• The actress, 41, resurrected her character Sydney for the CW's Melrose revamp—but in the premiere episode, she was shockingly killed off (again!).

WAS IT HARD KEEPING YOUR DEATH A SECRET? Yeah, it's been difficult; I've had to choose my words carefully. The shock value was important. It's easier now that the cat is completely out of the bag. Now my story will be told sort of in retrospect by using flashbacks.

SYDNEY DIED ONCE BEFORE. IS SHE REALLY DEAD THIS TIME? As far as I know, she really is dead. This was just a unique way to launch the new show, and we'll see where it takes us.

WOULD YOUR HUSBAND [DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES' DOUG SAVANT] ALSO BE UP FOR REVISITING HIS OLD CHARACTER, MATT? He's definitely willing, but of course he's really busy on his own show. It would just have to make sense in the story. It would be so great to see all of us back at some point.

DID YOUR KIDS WATCH THE NEW SHOW? We have two teenage daughters, and I showed them the pilot, and they loved it. They realized I might have love scenes with the younger guys and went, "Ewww, that's awkward!" I think they were shocked to find out Sydney was such a bad girl.

>Get ready for things to get even weirder. FOX's brilliant sci-fi hit Fringe is back in top form as it starts season 2 on Sept. 17. Agent Dunham (Anna Torv) resurfaces bruised and confused from the freaky alternate universe glimpsed in May's season finale.