Just when television threatened to morph into All Monica All the Time, along comes the mercifully distracting 1998 fall season. Indeed, of 36 new shows, not one is called Lewinsky. Instead execs hope we’ll fall for Felicity, Buddy Faro and Cupid, among others. And as the TV cosmos continues to expand with The WB, UPN and countless cable stations, a growing cluster of stars—new and old—deserves examination.

On the following pages our panel of experts—Washington Post critic Tom Shales; PEOPLE’S TV critic Terry Kelleher; Kris Magel, vice president of national broadcast for DeWitt Media, and Ted Harbert, an executive producer for DreamWorks—rate the best, the brightest, the quirkiest and at least one undeniable dog, Blue.

Fresh Faces

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos

House of Style (MTV, various dates and times)

Romijn-Stamos is crazy about her new job hosting House of Style, but the model is happier about marrying former Full House star John Stamos, whom she wed Sept. 19 in Los Angeles. “I’m thrilled about marriage,” says the 25-year-old, who may eventually drop her old surname. “I will no longer have to say, ‘Romijn, like the lettuce,’ ” she jokes. MTV hopes a lot more people will be calling her name. “She’s smart, funny, a great ad-libber,” says Style executive producer Alisa Bellettini. “She is a natural.”


“She’s no Jim Lehrer,” says Magel, “but she’ll do fine.”

Nathan Lane

Encore! Encore! (NBC, Tues., 8:30 p.m. ET)

Growing up in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father, Nathan Lane likens his Jersey City childhood to “bad Eugene O’Neill.” At that time, he says, “all my heroes were on TV.” Now Lane is there too: The Birdcage actor, 42, plays an opera singer in the new sitcom Encore! Encore!. Despite the show’s early production problems (the first episode was reshot and two roles were recast), Lane says he thinks “it has come together. We’re on track.” If anyone can pull it off, says friend and Encore costar Glenne Headly, it’s the man who made “Hakuna Matata” a national anthem. “He’s so sharp,” she says. “He has a real warmth. Not everybody who’s funny has that.”


‘It would be great for TV if his wonderful comedic talents worked,” says Harbert.

Keri Russell

Felicity (The WB, Tues., 9 p.m. ET)

Keri Russell doesn’t mind being touted as this year’s Calista Flockhart, who hit prime-time gold last season on Ally McBeal. Just don’t compare her title character on the new WB college drama Felicity to a certain waifish lawyer with a weakness for teensy-weensy skirts. “Girls in real life look a lot more like Felicity,” says Russell, 22. They might be looking up to her, too. Not that she’s a perfect role model. “She’s impulsive,” says Russell, a Fountain Valley, Calif., native who made an early splash on Malibu Shores in 1996. “I have much more clear thinking.” And if the show bombs, Russell might end up taking a cue from Felicity. “College,” she says, “is definitely still an option.”


“She’s the daughter parents would like to have, the girlfriend boys would like to have,” says Shales.

Whoopi Goldberg

Hollywood Squares (syndicated)

“If I ever see a path I haven’t gone on,” says Whoopi Goldberg, “I’ll walk down it.” Which brings us to the latest detour for the Oscar-winning actress, 48, who hosted a short-lived talk show in 1992. Goldberg will both produce and occupy the center square on this revival. “Whoopi,” says this Squares‘ host, Tom Bergeron, “is our slightly demented den mother.”

Tending to everything “from the food we serve to the prizes we give away,” producer Goldberg has so far induced Jennifer Love Hewitt, Tom Jones and Melanie Griffith (but not Goldberg’s boyfriend, actor Frank Langella) to sit in those nine 5½-by-5-by-4-foot cubicles. “There’s enough room for me to stand up in mine,” says Goldberg. “Although when Shaq O’Neal is on, he might have a hard time.”


“Whoopi will bring new life to the exhumed corpse of Hollywood Squares,” says Shales.

Jeremy Piven

Cupid (ABC, Sat., 10 p.m. ET)

During his three seasons on Ellen, Piven was often obscured Ellen DeGeneres’s imposing shadow. Though producers promised to showcase his comedic talent, “the minute I’d improv, they’d yell cut,” he recalls. “I was the Greek chorus to a very good comedian.” Since Ellen’s cancellation in April, Piven, 33, has blossomed professionally. On ABC’s new series Cupid, he keeps us guessing as Trevor Hale, who is either the angelic archer himself or a mortal madman on a quest to match hapless singles. Playing Cupid, though, hasn’t helped Piven make his own love connection. Noting the irony, he says, “I think the joke may be on me.”


“He has a great intensity that can be quite compelling. There’s an urgency to him,” says Harbert.

D.L. Hughley

The Hughleys (ABC, Tues., 8:30 p.m. ET)

He’s a stand-up comic turned sitcom star, but Hughley’s childhood memories of life in South Central L.A. aren’t terribly funny. “I remember when I was in the seventh grade and we heard shots,” he says. “People were running down the street, so we got on our bikes and followed them. It was the first time I’ve seen a guy dead. The guy wasn’t in a gang, he was a Boy Scout. I remember being different after that.” At 15, he dropped out of high school and promptly joined the Bloods, the notorious L.A. street gang. But determined “to be something,” he says, he quit the gang and in the mid-’80s went to work as a telemarketer for the Los Angeles Times. There he met his wife, LaDonna, 36, who, with their friends, encouraged Hughley (pronounced HUE-glee), 35, to hone his wisecracking wit into a hugely successful stand-up career. His act—like the show it has inspired—draws on the couple’s adventures with their children (Ryan, 11, Kyle, 9, and Tyler, 7) in a white upper-middle-class suburb. Just don’t confuse The Hughleys with The Jeffersons. “George [Jefferson] wanted to be treated like a white man,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to think I’ve lost where I came from.”


“Hughley plays a character named Hughley. Seinfeld played a character named Seinfeld,” says Kelleher. “So you might say history’s on Hughley’s side.”

Topher Grace

That ’70s Show (FOX, Sun., 8:30 p.m. ET)

It’s tough enough being the star of a new sitcom without being born two years after its 1976 setting. “I have to ask things like, ‘Who is Nipsey Russell?’ and ‘What was Petticoat Junction?’ ” says That ’70s Show’s Grace, 20. He might never have found out had he not impressed the show’s creators Bonnie and Terry Turner during his audition for the role of ’70s high schooler Eric Foreman. “He just kept nailing it,” says Terry. Despite a crash course in the ’70s from studying such movies as Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights, Topher admits he still has a lot to learn. “Sometimes I look at the clothes,” he says, “and I wonder, ‘What the hell were they thinking?’ ”


“He has a likable quizzicality that helps make That ’70s Show surprisingly funny,” says Kelleher.

Return Engagements

Boomer Esiason

Monday Night Football (ABC, Mon., 8 p.m. ET)

Most jocks wait till they can no longer perform on the field before settling into the commentator’s armchair. But 14-year NFL quarterback Norman “Boomer” Esiason spurned a two-year, $8 million offer to lead the Cincinnati Bengals in favor of a five-year, $7.5 million deal to spend Mondays with Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf. Esiason, 37, is enjoying more time at home in Manhasset, N.Y., with wife Cheryl, 35, son Gunnar, 7, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, and daughter Sydney, 6—”The kids are excited; they’re like, ‘Dad, let’s do stuff!’ ” he says. “There’s a lot of little kid in Boomer,” says Dierdorf. “He gets all of us a little wound up.”


“He’s America’s boy,” says Magel. “He’ll be bustin’ chops.”

Courtney Thorne-Smith

Ally McBeal (FOX, Mon., 9 p.m. ET)

Shortly after Thorne-Smith left her role as Alison Parker on FOX’s nighttime soap Melrose Place after five seasons, producers of a new comedy called Ally McBeal asked her to join the ensemble cast of attorneys as Georgia Thomas, the wife of Ally’s ex-flame. One hit season after pouncing on the offer, the Los Angeles-based actress, who is currently single, is basking in her good fortune and newfound respectability. “The perception of the shows is so different,” says Thorne-Smith, 30. “I used to get ‘You’re so pretty’ from people when I was on Melrose Place. Now I get asked legal questions. People speak to me as if I’m intelligent now.”


“She has a great combination of brains and beauty,” says Harbert. “Women relate to her.”

Chris Rock

The Chris Rock Show (HBO, Fri., 11:30 p.m. ET)

So what if he’s had two blockbuster films (Lethal Weapon 4 and Dr. Dolittle), a bestselling novel and a hit CD in the past year? Chris Rock isn’t downsizing. “Never accept anything in this business,” says Rock, 33. “Here today, David Cassidy tomorrow.” Now, as the comedian embarks on the third season of The Chris Rock Show, competitors Vibe and The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show have disappeared. “Chris is someone who’s done his homework,” says pal and fellow talk show host Conan O’Brien. “He’s not trying to get by on style or attitude. He puts the work in.” Explains Rock (who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Malaak, 29): “I’m just trying to do a really funny show and not get caught up in the hipness and wearing shiny suits.”


“He’s the funniest, smartest comedian working today,” says Harbert.

Dennis Farina

Buddy Faro (CBS, Fri., 9 p.m. ET)

“He’s a throwback to another time, and he likes it,” says Farina, 54, explaining his title character, a dapper private eye from the ’70s who turns up 20 years later to help a young P.I. (Frank Whaley) solve cases. “I think I’m that way to a certain degree, too.” A Chicago cop for 18 years (“Sometimes, I do pinch myself about the life I’ve had,” he says), Farina quit after nabbing a part in the 1986 film Man-hunter. After more tough guy roles (NBC’s Crime Story, 1995’s Get Shorty), Farina, who’s divorced with three grown sons, has found one that’s tailor-made. “Dennis is Buddy Faro,” says executive producer Aaron Spelling. “He would have made a good Rat Pack member.” Indeed, as Farina, who is currently unattached and living in L.A., describes his ideal day: “You get up, you go play some golf, have lunch with the guys, then take your gal out to a nice dinner, maybe listen to a jazz trio, then go home.” Ring-a-ding-ding, Clyde.


“He’s got a great flair,” says Harbert. “He was born to play this role on Buddy Faro.”

Shannen Doherty

Charmed (The WB, Wed., 9 p.m. ET)

“I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t great to work with,” says producer Aaron Spelling of Doherty, 27, who stars with Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs in this fantasy about three sister witches. Did Doherty cast a spell over Spelling? In her four seasons playing Beverly Hills, 90210‘s Brenda Walsh, she earned a reputation as a something that rhymes with witch: a hellion who partied hard, wrote $31,628.16 in bad checks and broke up with husband Ashley Hamilton after only five months. Doherty says that’s all ancient history. “On weekends, I love to ride my horses,” she says. “I feel like a grown-up.” Says Combs: “Audiences like her strength, her individuality, her fiery personality.” Here’s hoping no one gets burned this time.


“She’s back,” says Magel. “She’s going to be a very strong component on the show.”

Ben Stein

Win Ben Stein’s Money (Comedy Central, weeknights)

There probably has never been a quiz show host as brainy as Stein, 53. Contestants compete with the ex-Nixon staffer, best known as the dull teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And if they win? “I freak out,” says Stein.


“Ben Stein has carved out a niche that he alone can fill,” says Shales.

David E. Kelley

Ally McBeal (FOX, Mon., 9 p.m. ET)

The Practice (ABC, Sun., 10 p.m. ET)

Chicago Hope (CBS, Wed., 10 p.m. ET)

Kelley, 42, busy creator of three current hits, scribbles his scripts in pencil and still manages to get home for dinner with his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer. “I don’t know how he does it,” marvels The Practice’s Camryn Manheim.


“If it’s his show,” says Magel, “it’s great.”

Dylan McDermott

The Practice (ABC, Sun., 10 p.m. ET)

“I was waiting for people to catch on before it got canceled,” McDermott, 36, says of the law drama that, due to black-hole time slots, was proclaimed “The Best Show You’re Not Watching” by TV Guide. “Finally, they did.” A freshly minted Emmy for best drama can only help. “To win the Emmy,” says the elated actor, who lives in L.A. with his wife, actress Shiva Afshar, 29, and daughter Colette, 2, “just shows that you can never give up.”


“He really burns up the tube,” says Shales. “He’s perfect for the part.”

Cindy Crawford

Special correspondent (ABC, various dates and times)

For someone who made her name wearing clothes, Crawford seems much preoccupied lately with their absence. Nude in the current Playboy, Crawford, 32, unveiled her series of prime-time specials on Sept. 22 with the seductive title Sex with Cindy Crawford. But the newlywed (to nightclub owner Rande Gerber), who will also appear on ABC’s Good Morning America, doesn’t “want to be known as the Dr. Ruth of my generation. I am interested in everything from the new skirt length to family issues. I want my ABC work to reflect the diversity of my interests.”


Model host? “Better her than [20/20’s] John Stossel,” says Kelleher.

Jerry Stiller

The King of Queens (CBS, Mon., 8:30 p.m. ET)

As an irascible dad who moves in with his daughter and son-in-law, Stiller, 71, does “less screaming” on Queens, says an insider, than he did on Seinfeld. Which might explain why his castmates “treat me like I’m the king of the world,” says Stiller.


Harbert: “He’s always fun to watch.”

Benjamin Bratt

Law & Order (NBC, Wed., 10 p.m. ET)

For four seasons, Benjamin Bratt has portrayed conservative Det. Rey Curtis on Law & Order. Curtis probably would have opposed the actions of Bratt’s mom, Eldy, a Native American activist who took her five kids along when she participated in a yearlong takeover of California’s Alcatraz Island in 1970. “It was the ultimate playground,” says Bratt, 34. These days he gets His kicks out of romancing girlfriend Julia Roberts, whom he reportedly met last November. “All that I have to say about Julia couldn’t possibly fit into one or two sentences,” says Bratt. “She’s an incredible woman.”


“He’s the hunk dujour,” says Shales.

Kathy Najimy

Veronica’s Closet (NBC, Thurs., 9:30 p.m. ET)

King of the Hill (FOX, Tues., 8 p.m. ET)

“I’m not a big fan of television,” says Kathy Najimy, 41. “I don’t like it, and I don’t watch it.” She hardly has time. But although she’s entering her second year juggling roles as Kirstie Alley’s sidekick on Veronica’s Closet, as the voice of Peggy Hill on the animated series King of the Hill and as the real-life mother of Samia, 21 months, her daughter with her husband, actor Dan Finnerty, Najimy still has energy to entertain. “Kathy is hysterical,” says Alley. “She’s always pulling her shirt off or her dress down. If I were a guy, I’d marry her.”


“Her presence on the tube is helpful to all those women who can’t look like Brooke Shields,” says Shales.

Christina Applegate

Jesse (NBC, Thurs., 8:30 p.m. ET)

Christina Applegate likes the fact that people who meet her are stunned to learn she’s nothing like Kelly Bundy, the bombshell bimbo she played for 11 seasons on the sitcom Married…with Children. “It means that I was good at what I did,” says Applegate, 26. “I fooled the world.” She hopes to fool ’em some more as a single working mom on NBC’s new comedy Jesse. Her love life is also evolving. Applegate dates actor Johnathon Schaech (That Thing You Do!), and although they worship each other, they also “swap churches,” says Applegate, who practices Religious Science, a New Age-ish faith, while Schaech is Catholic. “I go to his church, and he comes to mine. TV, like life, is goofy, and it helps me keep a clear perspective.”


“She’s sexy” says Shales, “but she’s got the wholesomeness that could make her a big TV star.”

Rick Schroder

NYPD Blue (ABC, Tues., 10 p.m. ET)

When Rick Schroder first emerged as a replacement for the departing Jimmy Smits, executive producer Steven Bochco was leery. But once he met the Silver Spoons vet, “I was taken with him,” Bochco says. While his child-star peers were lengthening their rap sheets, Schroder, 28, was beefing up his résumé and raising three children (sons Holden, 6, Luke, 5, and daughter Cambrie, 1) with wife Andrea, 26. Schroder’s NYPD debut in November is sure to win him new admirers, to his kids’ continued amazement. Schroder says, “My son will look at me and say, ‘Daddy, why was that lady so excited? What’s the big deal?’ ”


“I used to refer to him as Icky Ricky,” says Shales. “But he’s really emerged as quite a formidable actor.”

Donny and Marie Osmond

Donny & Marie (syndicated; daily)

Since their kitschy variety show went off the air in 1979, Donny, 40, and Marie, 38, have been busy raising 11 kids between them—Marie and her husband have six; Donny and his wife, five. “We bring a little sibling rivalry to the table,” says Donny. “Oh, it exists!” exclaims Marie. “How could it not?”


Their new snow may fly only “if they’ve become less sugary,” says Shales.

The Olsen Twins

Two of a Kind (ABC, Fri., 8 p.m. ET)

Twelve-year-old fraternal twins Mary-Kate and Ashley parlayed eight seasons on Full House into a series of kiddie videos, TV movies and, now, their own prime-time twincom. On Full House, says Mary-Kate, “we did, like, two lines at most.” Now, says Ashley, “we’re saying paragraphs.”


“Their new show is definitely funnier than the average Doublemint commercial,” says Kelleher.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker

South Park (Comedy Central, Wed., 10 p.m. ET)

A mammoth assault on taste, the show mixes everything from bathroom humor to celebrity satire. It’s foul-mouthed, badly drawn and, although the heroes are schoolboys, suitable only for shock-resistant families. It’s also a major hit, the show that put Comedy Central on the map and the most talked-about TV cartoon since The Simpsons. “We’re not making the show for kids,” says writer Parker, 28 (right), who originally cooked it up as a gag—a Christmas video greeting—with film-school pal Stone, 27. “We’re making it for us.” So what offends him? “Full House.”


“They’re leading a new male revolution of crude behavior,” says Harbert. “These guys have the talent to get away with saying what shouldn’t be said.”

TV Titans

French Stewart

3rd Rock from the Sun (NBC, Wed., 9 p.m. ET)

When fans meet Stewart, they often give him a pat on the head. “I’ve got a fuzzy head,” he says, “and people just seem to like fuzzy.” They must like wild-and-woolly too, because that’s how Stewart, 34, plays Harry Solomon, the wiftiest of Rock’s E.T.s. Buster Keaton is his idol. Though not his only one: Last May he and psychology student Kathryn LaNasa, 31, were wed in Las Vegas…by an Elvis impersonator.


“He’s one of the best in recent TV history at playing quirky characters,” says Harbert.

Dick Van Dyke

Diagnosis Murder (CBS, Thurs., 9 p.m. ET)

At 72, Van Dyke is fighting to keep TV safe for seniors. Though his show, in which he plays a crime-solving doctor, owes much of its success to viewers over 50, “the networks and the advertisers want that younger audience,” he says. “And they are trying to aim our show that way. That generally means more graphic violence and explicit sex.” But, despite the pressure, he says, “I just refuse to do it. Maybe I’m just too old for the business these days.”


“I love that he dares to appeal to the un-young,” says Kelleher. “I wish Diagnosis gave him a better chance to display his talents.”

Lisa Kudrow

Friends (NBC, Thurs., 8 p.m. ET)

The delightfully dizzy Phoebe’s logic often leaves her Friends puzzled. In reality, with a happy marriage to advertising exec Michel Stern, 40, a new son, Julian, a blossoming film career and now even an Emmy for her sitcom role, Kudrow, 35, is as focused as any of the glib gang. “Lisa has her own quirky personality, but it’s 180 degrees from Phoebe,” says Friends executive producer David Crane. “In many ways she’s the most settled of the show’s cast.” Motherhood hasn’t slowed down the industrious actress, who just wrapped filming Analyze This with Robert De Niro. “I’ve never been good at relaxing,” she says. “I like to keep working.” Back taping Friends‘ fifth season, Kudrow often has her son with her on the set. But bringing up baby on a soundstage can be distracting—at least for other actors. “Everything just stops, especially with the girls,” she says of the cast reaction. “Matt Perry and Matt LeBlanc also just love to play around with him.” So will Kudrow have time to spin off a playmate for Julian? “After the amnesia sets in,” she jokes, “I’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s do it again!’ ”


“She has to prove she can be something besides the ditz that everyone likes,” says Shales.

Katie Couric

Today (NBC, weekdays, 7 a.m. ET)

When her husband, lawyer Jay Monahan, died at 42 of colon cancer last January, Couric’s viewers felt as if there had been a death in their own families. “She suffered a devastating loss, and she’s been incredibly strong for both herself and her children [Ellie, 7, and Carrie, 2],” says Today’s executive producer Jeff Zucker. Adds NBC News president Andy Lack: “She shares her life.”


“The audience feels they are in her living room when she’s on television,” says Magel.

George Clooney
ER (NBC, Thurs., 10 p.m. ET)

Though this is Clooney’s last season on ER (he’s focusing on his film career), fans shouldn’t go into cardiac arrest just yet. “He’s going to be here all year,” says one producer. And beyond. As Clooney, 37, told reporters, “They want me to come back and do guest shots.”


“He needs to get a series of his own,” says Shales, “if he’s going to be really, truly huge again.”

Alex Trebek

Jeopardy! (syndicated)

He’s 58, but the astute emcee seems in no danger of slowing down after 14 years refereeing the popular game show. Trebek, who lives in L.A. with his wife, Jean, 34, and their children, Matthew, 7, and Emily, 5, says his son “wants to host his own show. His version of Jeopardy! has clues like, ‘I want something to drink,’ and I have to say, ‘What is chocolate milk?’ ”


“What would have become of Jeopardy!” asks Kelleher, “if Wink Martindale had been the host?”

Roma Downey

IITALIC “Touched by an Angel”] (CBS, Sun., 8 p.m. ET)

Call it divine intervention, but Downey, 38, a London drama school grad who was checking coats at a Manhattan restaurant a decade ago, has parlayed her role as celestial do-gooder Monica into a bountiful acting career. Downey has been touched by heartache too. Growing up in strife-torn Derry, Northern Ireland, she ducked bullets and bombs. And this year has brought, she says, “a very sad and unhappy divorce” from director David Anspaugh, 52, with whom she has a daughter, Reilly Marie, 2. “Nothing in my youth could have prepared me for the journey my life has taken,” she says.


“If the show cheers people up,” says Shales, “God bless ’em. The rest of us need insulin shots.”

Oprah Winfrey

The Oprah Winfrey Show (syndicated, weekdays)

Oprah Winfrey, 44, has won a truckload of Daytime Emmys, sent books rocketing up the bestseller list, and even beat the beef industry in court earlier this year. Next she may be an Oscar hopeful, thanks to her roles as star and producer of the film Beloved, which opens Oct. 16. Beyond that? “She’s always evolving and changing,” says her best friend, former talk show host Gayle King. “Just when you think she can’t possibly top herself, she does.”


“She’s the warm blanket of daytime television,” says Magel. “Everybody loves her.”

Tim Russert

Meet the Press (NBC, Sun., check local listings)

Sunday is no day of rest for Russert—nor for the politicians who tune in with millions of other Americans to watch Press’s lively moderator put power players on the spot. Says Russert, 48: “I can almost visualize people in their living rooms saying, ‘Go get him, Tim!’ And other people saying, ‘No! No! Leave him alone!’ ”


Meet the Press was lying there dead before he came along,” says Shales.

Gillian Anderson

The X-Files (FOX, Sun., 9 p.m. ET)

A little sun has broken through the gloom of The X-Files. Since the show moved its shooting location from Vancouver to L.A. this summer, “it’s more fun driving home along Pacific Coast Highway,” says Anderson, 30, the divorced mother of Piper, 4. But those scripts still spook the star, who plays cool Agent Scully. “They’re almost as scary as tabloid stories.”


“She’s got a quiet, elegant sense about her that viewers relate to,” says Harbert.

Tom Gliatto, Mike Lipton, Steve Dougherty, Jeremy Helligar, Erik Meers, Jason Lynch

Ken Baker, Champ Clark, Steven Cojocaru, Elizabeth Leonard, Monica Rizzo, Craig Tomashoff, Paula Yoo, Irene Zutell (Los Angeles), Jason Lynch, Cynthia Wang (New York City), Macon Morehouse (Washington, D.C.)