BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
After big names were a big bust last year, TV networks have decided to make their own stars.
Gone are Bryant Gumbel, Bob Newhart, Tony Danza, Jane Seymour, Gregory Hines, Cybill Shepherd, Danny Aiello, Ellen DeGeneres, David Caruso, Tom Selleck and Jaleel White.
Say hello to Keri Russell, D.L Hughley, Elise Neal, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing and Kevin James. Who?
Don't worry, soon you'll know them on Felicity, The Hughleys, Will & Grace and The King of Queens.
When the new TV season officially starts next week, chances are you'll be talking about Buddy Faro, Maggie Winters, Cupid, Jesse, L.A. Doctors or Conrad Bloom.
Just like you quickly caught on last year to Ally McBeal and Dharma & Greg.
Believe it or not, you will want to make a return trip to ABC's Fantasy Island, with Malcolm McDowell as a twisted Mr. Roarke in the vision of producer Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, The Addams Family).
And you'll likely look in on the Hollywood Squares, which premieres Monday (7:30 p.m., Channel 5), and Donny & Marie (9 a.m. Sept. 21, Channel 5).
Forget what you've heard about this being the worst TV season in years (again). It's not true.
Overall, the quality is on par with last year, which wasn't as horrible as some -- but not this critic -- predicted.
For the record, last season produced many more series survivors (13) than any season in the past five years:
Dharma, Ally McBeal, Wonderful World of Disney, Dawson's Creek, Lateline, Working, Veronica's Closet, Kids Say the Darndest Things, Candid Camera, Getting Personal, For Your Love, The Magnificent Seven and Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place.
Granted, not all were smash hits.
Neither can most of the 30 new fall prime-time series to air here -- 36 if you count UPN shows not broadcast here. (UPN's Legacy post-Civil War drama, set in Lexington, Ky., won't air here because the network lacks a Cincinnati affiliate.)
A few new TV titles quickly could become household names, as the networks try a little bit of everything to win back millions who have defected to cable, movie rentals or the Internet. (On three nights last summer, basic cable channels drew more viewers than the Big Four networks for the first time in TV history.)
So they're reviving old shows (Fantasy Island), old times (That '70s Show), old concepts (three more sitcoms about inept single fathers) and a few careers (Shannen Doherty, Bo Derek, Ken Olin, Peter Horton and the Olsen twins).
They're spoofing ESPN (SportsNight), suburban integration (The Hughleys, Living in Captivity) and marriage (The Secret Lives of Men).
Some shows are too sweet (the Olsens' Two of a Kind), nauseatingly crude (Fox's Costello) or delightfully demented (Cupid, Fantasy Island).
And as the networks go down kicking, CBS is going with Hong Kong karate star Sammo Hung (Martial Law). Already he's punched out Jane Seymour's Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman from CBS' Saturday lineup.
The names to remember this fall:
Buddy Faro: He's the hippest, coolest, cat to cruise the airwaves in years. Dennis Farina (Saving Private Ryan, Crime Story) stars as CBS' Faro, a '70s swinging Sunset Strip detective who returns to Los Angeles after a 20-year drunk in Mexico.
Mark Frost (Twin Peaks) created the Rat Pack-style character lost in the brave new world of computers, cell phones, faxes and beepers without his old pals.
"Dino still coming around? How about Sammy?" he asks the waitress at his favorite old haunt in the premiere (9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25, Channels 12, 7).
Felicity: WB's Felicity is Ally McBeal in college. Keri Russell (The All New Mickey Mouse Club; Honey, I Blew Up the Kid) stars as an overprotected only child who disappoints her parents by impulsively deciding to study art in New York instead of staying home to pursue pre-med at Stanford.
Like Ally, she's insecure and talks to herself a lot. (9 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29, Channel 64).
Will & Grace: A buddy comedy with a twist: This guy and girl (Eric McCormack, Debra Messing) sharing a Manhattan apartment are perfect for each other -- except that Will is gay.
Only Will's friends know of the successful lawyer's sexual orientation, which can't be said for his outrageous gay friend Jack (Sean Hayes), who personifies every gay male stereotype on the NBC show (9:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 21, Channels 5, 22).
It's a very funny show, but risky. TV's first openly gay character -- Ellen DeGeneres' Ellen -- was canceled last spring because of low ratings.
The Hughleys: Comedian D.L. Hughley explores African-American life in a mostly white suburb with humor and grace on ABC's promising comedy (8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Sept. 22, Channels 9, 2).
In a show produced with comedian Chris Rock, Mr. Hughley (Built to Last) plays a vending machine distributor suspicious of his white neighbor's friendliness.
SportsNight: ABC's comedy set in an ESPN SportsCenter-style operation is a witty, yet realistic show, in the TV tradition of Murphy Brown or Al Franken's spring Lateline series. ESPN junkies will enjoy the antics of ABC's tag-team partners (Peter Krause from The Truman Show; Josh Charles from Dead Poets Society) and their staff (9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22, Channels 9, 2).
That '70s Show: Fox repeats the Aug. 23 premiere of its delightful Happy Days-style spoof of the 1970s today (8:30 p.m., Channels 19, 45). Seventeen-year-old Eric Foreman (Topher Grace) and his teen-age pals plot how to sneak off to a Todd Rundgren concert in Milwaukee, while their partying parents do "The Hustle" upstairs. Cupid: Jeremy Piven (Ellen) plays ABC's Cupid, a certifiably crazy mental patient claiming to be the God of Love (10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, Channels 9, 2).
He's released into the care of a by-the-book relationship counselor (Paula Marshall, the Seinfeld college student who thought Jerry and George were gay). You won't be sure whether Cupid is the mythical matchmaker or nuts. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Madisonville native Jeffrey D. Sams co-stars as Champ, a struggling actor enlisted by Cupid to facilitate romantic encounters.
Two other Tristate natives get their big break this fall:
Oak Hills High School graduate Jenny Robertson (Bull Durham) co-stars as Faith Ford's best friend on Maggie Winters (8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30, Channels 12, 7).
Screenwriter Cyrus Vorhis (Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight), a School for the Creative and Performing Arts graduate, co-created Fox's Brimstone drama starring Peter Horton (thirtysomething) as a bounty hunter from Hell.
Brimstone won't premiere until after the World Series (9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27, Channels 19, 45). By that time, several shows could be canceled, including the new Roseanne talk show premiering Monday (3 p.m., Channel 5).
John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.