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Maggie Grace, among the survivors "Lost" in the new ABC series
TV's Fall Harvest: Prime-Time's Best Shows

MSN Entertainment

With the first wave of fall television premieres complete, how is the season shaping up? Much better than expected, thanks to a bumper crop of absorbing new shows and strong returning series now hitting their stride.

While there are new variations of sturdy franchises including both "Law & Order" and "CSI," and fresh exercises in stale prime time genres, the series that are winning critical plaudits and earning heartening ratings share a common ambition.  Were it a fashion trend, we could call it "the layered look" -- The best new shows work by defying genre expectations and reaching for riskier, more surprising strategies to snare our attention.

"Lost," for example, combines "Gilligan's Island" with "Jurassic Park," with elements of "Survivor" and "X-Files" thrown in. "Desperate Housewives" keeps viewers guessing -- is this a mystery, a soap opera or a really black comedy set in suburbia?

Such experimentation has been the province of cable programmers, a trend underscored by the 2004 Emmy Awards.  More than ever, network entries were rivaled and then surpassed by the edgier fare served by cable channels, exemplified by HBO.

Yet the big buzz this fall is humming loudest behind new scripted network dramas, with both critical and commercial momentum being felt most forcefully at two of the 'big three' nets, CBS and ABC.  For the Tiffany network, the Nielsen numbers have been giddy, following their strong summer of heavily-promoted reruns with four weeks of consecutive weekly Nielsen wins primarily driven by first-run shows in the new season. Their strongest shows have gotten stronger, while the summer slate elevated several series from middle of the pack to top of the heap.

For ABC, however, the good news is more subjective but no less welcome.  Having languished in fourth place behind Fox, and endured speculation about their disappointing performance within the Disney empire, the network has bounced back into the spotlight with two of the season's highest-rated AND critically acclaimed series, "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," while reincarnating the stumbling "The Practice" into this year's strutting "Boston Legal."

Our first look at this fall's best shows is just that, a sampling of new and returning shows already out of the gate, or poised to return soon.  A late harvest of new shows, scheduled for November, could serve up welcome mid-term winners. Our list also focuses on autumn entries to the exclusion of off-cycle seasons for summer and winter shows.

Here's what we're watching:


ABC, Wednesday, 8 pm ET/PT
Starring Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Dominic Monaghan, Harold Perrineau

LostCreator J. J. Abrams ("Felicity," "Alias") unveils his most audacious experiment in genre-splicing with this intricate, astonishing thriller.  Early reviews pondered its lineage ("Gilligan's Island" meets "Jurassic Park"), but with what Abrams has termed a "hyper-real" set-up involving the crash of a passenger jet on a remote Pacific island, a cast of 48 characters whose appearances can be misleading, and unnerving sci-fi and horror elements, "Lost" has already proven itself subtler and more complex than such equations suggest. With plot twists that stretch credibility to, but not beyond, the breaking point, we've been chilled, scared and tickled in rapid sequence, which sounds like a great way to spend Wednesday nights.

"Desperate Housewives"
ABC, Sunday, 9 pm ET/PT
Starring Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria

Desperate HousewivesLike its castaway cousin, "Housewives" layers its approach with sophisticated twists to its sudsy, suburban soap opera.  Its narrator, Mary Alice (Brenda Strong), is a suicide tracking her former friends' lives on upscale Wisteria Lane, a device familiar from Alan Ball's "American Beauty."  Like Ball, the ABC show's creator, Marc Cherry, threads darkly comic and even violent intrigues against a domestic backdrop: An early highlight finds the haughty Bree (Cross) responding to her husband's request for a divorce by spiking his salad with onions, to which her hubby has a life-threatening allergy.  Such delirious riffs are balanced with moments of clear-eyed realism in the Everywives' daily grind that suggest Cherry and company intend to sustain gravity as well as levity.

"Veronica Mars"
UPN, Tuesday, 9 pm ET/PT
Starring Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni, Corinne Bohrer, Percy Daggs III

Veronica MarsThe season's best new crime show doesn't rely on special effects or baroque forensic plot points.  Instead, "Veronica Mars" gives us a heroine whose new sideline as a detective is fueled by a central mystery, the death of her best friend, and the social free-fall that followed that tragedy, which cost Veronica's father his job and his reputation as sheriff, and Veronica her standing in the high school pecking order. It's as if Nancy Drew were motivated by grief and revenge instead of civic duty and feminine curiosity.  This 17-year old shamus seeks to clear her father's name, find her mysteriously missing mother and identify her friend's killer, while also solving humbler crimes.  Early converts are already comparing Veronica to a certain stake-holder in the suburban vampire-hunting trade, and we can see why.  Bell, who was impressive in the first season of "Deadwood," shines as a resilient, intelligent heroine who struggles with recognizable family issues.

NEXT>>>Best returning shows