The curtain's rising on the broadcast networks' newest offerings. With a slate of comedies and dramas -- and a light dose of reality -- the menu offers something for every taste. But will the season offer a substantial feast or just empty calories? TV Week offers a preview of the freshman programs premiering this week, listed in order of appearance.

"Surface"

Mondays at 8 p.m. on NBC

The tagline you'll never see: Don't hold your breath.

The basics: Four disparate but not exactly compelling story lines about bizarre new sea species converge in this show's pilot. Single mom Laura (Lake Bell), unpopular preteen Miles (Carter Jenkins), fisherman Richard (Jay R. Ferguson) and government scientist Aleksander (Rade Sherbedgia) all encounter the creatures, and each has a different reaction. Richard believes the encounter has changed him, Laura seeks to expose the truth and Aleksander wants the world to think this is all a big whale tale. Miles takes an egg home as his pet -- a very bad idea. He's going to need a bigger fish tank.

The lowdown: The series may have changed its name from the equally vague "Fathom," but the show has bigger problems than a confusing moniker. The sea monster is not seen but is merely alluded to, raising more questions for viewers: What is it? Where does it come from? Why is it electrically charged? How many are out there? And, more important, why should I even care?

Reality cpheck: We have "Lost" to thank for the plethora of sci-fi and fantasy shows invading the airwaves this fall. And like the ABC hit, this cast has its share of little-known actors -- a risky move in today's TV landscape. Executive producers Josh and Jonas Pate are banking on the intricate plot being strong enough to pull in viewers. But something was lost in translation.

-- Amy Amatangelo

"How I Met Your Mother"

Mondays at 8:30 p.m.

on CBS

The tagline you'll never see: Are we more than just friends?

The basics: Learning his best pal is about to become engaged serves as a wake-up call for Ted (Josh Radnor), who sets out to find his true love. He's coached by the engaged (and engaging) couple -- played by Jason Segel ("Freaks and Geeks") and Alyson Hannigan ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") -- and his friend Barney (Neil Patrick Harris, "Doogie Howser, M.D."). Quirky Barney has a habit of introducing Ted to women by spinning him around and saying, "Hi. Have you met Ted?" In the pilot, Ted meets Robin (Cobie Smulders) and is instantly smitten.

The story that unfolds is actually a flashback told by Ted in 2030 to his two children. ("Are we being punished?" they ask.) Sharp viewers will realize the narrator's voice is not Radnor's, but Bob Saget's ("Full House").

The lowdown: CBS has been strong in comedy on Mondays, thanks to "Everybody Loves Raymond," which ended its run in May. "How I Met Your Mother" is solidly placed between "King of Queens" at 8 p.m. and "Two and a Half Men," which took the crucial "Raymond" slot at 9. Creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas say they based the show on their lives and that of Craig's wife, Rebecca.

Reality check: If the synergy of the creators and cast is any indicator, this comedy will be a lot of fun to watch. The show is about the journey, Bays said, "and, like, being 27 and single, living in New York, and just the idea of waking up one day and saying, 'Gosh, maybe I should settle down.' " Hmmm. Could a comedy about the lives and loves of attractive twenty- and thirty-something friends in New York be a hit?

-- Judith S. Gillies

"Kitchen Confidential"

Mondays at 8:30 p.m. on Fox

The tagline you'll never see: Undercooked.

The basics: Chef Jack Bourdain (Bradley Cooper) knows his way around a kitchen. Now, if he can only figure out his own life. When we meet the dashing chef, he's at the top of his game cooking in New York's finest restaurants and cooking with New York's finest women. But before you can say "Soup's on!" Bourdain has lost it all, thanks to drug and alcohol abuse. We find him at the bottom again, slaving away miserably at a family-style Italian restaurant. He's given another chance when the owner of a classy new joint hires him as head chef. The catch: He's overseeing a staff full of eccentric characters.

The lowdown: The series has a few things that may bring an automatic audience to the table. First, it's based on the best-selling autobiography by renowned chef Anthony Bourdain, who's no stranger to television as the host of his own cooking shows. Second, the nation can't seem to get enough of the cooking-show genre, judging by the popularity of shows such as Food Network's "Iron Chef" and even the moderate success of the summer reality series "Hell's Kitchen." Lastly -- and most important for Fox -- the series boasts executive producer (and local boy) Darren Star, the brains behind the incredibly successful and oft-quoted "Sex and the City."

Reality check: Despite all of the right ingredients for a successful show, "K.C." doesn't quite make for a satisfactory meal. Many of the jokes fall flat, and the barbs traded between restaurant staffers become too much to take. Still, Cooper plays Bourdain's character with an alluring cockiness made all the more interesting by his fallibility. Cooper, who memorably played the obnoxious preppy in the summer box-office hit "The Wedding Crashers," is an appetizing lure to an otherwise hard-to-stomach entree.

-- John Maynard

"Just Legal"

Mondays at 9 p.m. on WB

The tagline you'll never see: Doogie Howser, J.D.

The basics: David "Skip" Ross (Jay Baruchel) is an uptight 19-year-old legal prodigy who dreams of becoming a top trial lawyer. The problem is that no law firm will hire him because he's too darned young. Heck, he's two years away from legally ordering his first drink. Enter run-down lawyer Grant Cooper (Don Johnson), a boozer who was a top lawyer until a tragic case sent one of his clients to the electric chair and made him the cynical court-appointed lawyer he is today. Cooper's looking for an assistant to do his dirty work, so Skip happily takes the job. The two couldn't be more different but, rest assured, each has something to learn from the other.

The lowdown: Jerry Bruckheimer, who has enough shows on television now to start his own network, is the brains behind this legal drama. It's a departure from his other current projects, including the visually exciting and sometimes gory "CSI" franchise and the heart-thumping "Amazing Race" series. Might he have another hit on his hands? The return of Mr. Miami Vice to television definitely will draw some eyeballs, and while more than enough legal dramas are out there, "Just Legal" at least provides a new twist to the genre.

Reality check: Johnson's return is a welcome one and the best part of the drama. He looks weathered and beaten, but it suits his grizzled, alcoholic character. The problem is there's just no chemistry with his teenage co-star, who has done some great work on film in last year's "Million Dollar Baby" and on Fox's brilliant but short-lived comedy "Undeclared." Combine that with a not very compelling, run-of-the-mill plot line (at least in the pilot episode), and "Just Legal" comes out "just okay."

-- John Maynard

"Out of Practice"

Mondays at 9:30 p.m. on CBS

The tagline you'll never see: Trying to put the "fun" in dysfunctional.

The basics: Cutie psychologist and youngest son Ben (Christopher Gorham) must deal with his gastroenterologist father (Henry Winkler), his cardiologist mom (Stockard Channing), his ER doc sister, Regina (Paula Marshall) and his plastic-surgeon brother, Oliver (Ty Burrell). Ben thinks he'll never earn the respect of the family because he's the only one who's not a doctor. In the pilot, the family finds out that recently divorced dad is sleeping with his much younger assistant (Jennifer Tilly). But the worst part is that Ben's activist wife, Naomi, is leaving him -- and the family finds out before Ben does.

The lowdown: The series, from "Frasier" executive producers Joe Keenan and Christopher Lloyd, boasts a coveted time slot and a terrific cast. Now they just need a script that's as good as they are. The never-seen Naomi seems poised to become TV's next Maris, just like Niles's wife on "Frasier." Paula Marshall has the perhaps undeserved reputation of being a show-killer ("Hidden Hills," "Snoops," "Cupid" and, well, it seems cruel to go on). Has she finally picked a winner?

Reality check: Even when working with mundane material, the seasoned actors infuse the dialogue with pizazz and create a classic comedy of errors. The deadpan Burrell is a hoot as Ben's smarmy but well-meaning older brother, but there are only so many jokes he can make about giving women a surgically enhanced chest. Our prescription: The paramount rule in comedy is less is often more.

-- Amy Amatangelo

"My Name Is Earl"

Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC

The tagline you'll never see: A trailer-park treasure.

The basics: Earl (Jason Lee) is a lifelong loser whose hobbies include breaking into family minivans and playing games of beer can tag with his drinking buddies. He seems content with his go-nowhere life until one magical day when, seconds after learning he's won $100,000 in the lottery, he's run over by a motorist. From his hospital bed, he learns about karma (with help, oddly enough, from late-night host Carson Daly), the belief that bad things happen to those who do bad things, which he's done a lot of. Secure with that knowledge, Earl sets out to right all of the wrongs in his life, and he's got quite a list of wrongs that need righting.

The lowdown: You'd be hard-pressed to name a sitcom that's found success on NBC in recent years. Things have been especially dim on Tuesday nights, which has been a dead zone for the network since "Frasier's" demise. Executives hope some advance buzz on "Earl" could lead to a hit and help put the struggling network back in business after a pitiful season.

Reality check: "Earl" is a pearl and Lee is pure glee as the dimwitted, shiftless loafer who walks around with a dazed and confused stare on his unshaven face. The writers smartly avoid making Earl a completely sympathetic character: Despite his vow to do only good, his instincts for troublemaking still boil just below the surface, and that makes for great fun. Let's hope the absence of a laugh track and the show's skewed sensibility, which owes a lot to the Coen brothers' classic film "Raising Arizona," don't scare off viewers.

-- John Maynard

"E-Ring"

Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC

The tagline you'll never see: Lords of the E-Ring.

The basics: Maj. Jim "J.T." Tisnewski (Benjamin Bratt), a Green Beret, is newly arrived in the nation's capital when he's summoned to the Pentagon for an urgent situation. There, he meets Sgt. Jocelyn Pierce (Aunjanue Ellis), a no-nonsense Marine who makes it clear that her job is to keep him and their boss, Col. McNulty (Dennis Hopper), out of trouble. That's not an easy thing to do, because J.T. and McNulty are pretty independent guys.

The lowdown: "E-Ring" has seen some changes since its original pilot -- most notably, Bratt's character is now single. The stories are centered in the Pentagon -- and some scenes were shot locally -- but the covert action takes place all over the world. Despite being executive-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer ("CSI") and boasting the star power of Hopper and Bratt, "E-Ring" is in an incredibly tough time slot against ABC's runaway hit "Lost."

Reality check: Ken Robinson, co-creator and executive producer, writes what he knows: He's been a U.S. Army Ranger and has worked in the Pentagon. That said, he acknowledges that there's a fine line between fiction and fact in "E-Ring" (aka the Pentagon's outer ring). In the pilot, J.T. needs wheels -- so he borrows a bicycle and pedals to the Pentagon. That seemingly farfetched ride was based on a real trip Robinson took (eight-and-a-half minutes, all downhill from Columbia Pike, he says). But the show's ride is going to be uphill.

-- Judith S. Gillies

"Invasion"

Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC

The tagline you'll never see: They will survive.

The basics: The plot seems eerily prescient: A major hurricane slams into the United States, leaving in its wake ripped-up buildings and shell-shocked survivors. However, this tragedy takes place in Homestead, Fla., and might -- or might not -- be a cloak for something supernatural. In the aftermath of the storm, park ranger Russell Varon (Eddie Cibrian, "Third Watch") starts noticing some strange things: His ex-wife who disappeared during the hurricane reappears unharmed but is acting a bit peculiar. His daughter, Rose, says she saw lights coming down from the sky. And his brother-in-law's oddball theories start to sound strangely plausible.

The lowdown: If ABC goes ahead with airing this show so recently after Hurricane Katrina (at press time, the network still was considering its options), "Invasion" has a good chance of succeeding. It's about the paranormal -- a hot topic in TV land right now -- and "Invasion" has one of the best lead-ins of any show, airing after the powerhouse "Lost." It's got a great cast, including William Fichtner as the sheriff with a shady side.

Reality check: Executive producer Shaun Cassidy's wife's family is from Homestead and lived through Hurricane Andrew in 1992. And in creating this show, Cassidy says he was trying to capture the aftermath of surviving something so unreal. In the pilot episode, he succeeds in introducing compelling characters viewers will actually care about. But the real-life grief so many have faced might make this reality TV that hits too close to home.

-- Debra Leithauser

"Everybody Hates Chris"

Thursdays at 8 p.m. on UPN

The tagline you'll never see: "The Wonder Years" in the middle.

The basics: Comedian Chris Rock reminiscences about his childhood in Brooklyn during the early 1980s. Thirteen-year-old Chris (Tyler James Williams) navigates his way through his predominantly white junior high school while crushing on the girl next door (Keisha Ridenhour) and dealing with his two younger siblings (Tequan Richmond and Imani Hakim). Chris's father (Terry Crews) works three jobs while Chris's mom (Tichina Arnold) dishes out advice and manages the family's frugal budget. In the pilot, Chris makes a new friend (Vincent Martella) and loses his lunch money to the school bully.

The lowdown: It's open season on Thursday night now that NBC's "Must-See TV" has become a thing of the past. (Sorry, "Joey" and "Will & Grace.") And what better show to pick up the comedy torch than this poignant new sitcom. Newcomer Williams is a true find: He deftly balances Chris's necessary bravado with adolescent awkwardness. His expressive eyes say more than most child actors can with pages of dialogue.

Reality check: Narrator Rock, who is known for his blunt humor, doesn't shy away from controversial topics, race-related comedy or taboo words. Yes, his parents didn't have much money and his neighborhood had a crack epidemic. Classmates called him bad names, and adults were afraid of him because of the color of his skin. But there is no sense of pity about his childhood. There are some social messages here, but laughs are the first priority.

-- Amy Amatangelo

"Love, Inc."

Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on UPN

The tagline you'll never see: And starring Shannen Doherty as Denise!

The basics: Newly divorced Clea (Holly Robinson Peete) runs a matchmaking service with the help of her best gal pal, Denise (Busy Philipps). The ladies fancy themselves "wing women" -- out to find girlfriends for the most desperate of men. Clea, Denise, and Francine (Reagan Gomez-Preston) rid hapless men of their bad pickup lines, pocket protectors and sci-fi obsessions. The only problem is that unlucky-in-love Denise seems to be able to help everyone else but herself.

The lowdown: Usually Doherty leaves a series amid a rumors of on-set strife ("Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Charmed"). This time "Love, Inc." avoided possible conflict by booting Doherty soon after the show was picked up. The newly brunette Philipps ("Freaks and Geeks") brings more charm and less edge to the role. The entire cast seems to have followed her lead and taken their performance down a notch. And some of the best lines go to goofy Barry (Vince Vieluf), whose oddball observations ("Why are movie stars on the cover of 'TV Guide?'") could become the show's signature moment.

Reality check: "Love, Inc." has one of the few seamlessly integrated casts on TV. Alas, Ion Overman's Viviana is reduced to a one-note character. Every man she meets, talks to or hears about is a potential husband. Our advice for the lovelorn? Lose that shtick fast. The show has the potential to be much more clever.

-- Amy Amatangelo

"Criminal Minds"

Previews Thursday at 10 p.m. on CBS; regular time is Wednesdays at 9 p.m. starting Sept. 28

The tagline you'll never see: CSI Minus DNA.

The basics: Yes, another CBS crime procedural, but not from the Bruckheimer factory. This one is set at the FBI Academy in Quantico and features a team of agents who deconstruct the psyches of evildoers, hoping to derail their violent track records. Leading the squad is Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin), whose superior skills and smarts may be strained by his recovery from a job-related nervous breakdown. ("They don't call them that anymore," he reminds a colleague.) Aided by fellow agents (played by Thomas Gibson, Shemar Moore and Lola Glaudini), Gideon puzzles out the actions of arsonists, killers and sadists, collecting clues as he quotes Churchill and Nietzsche. He also likes to cut to the chase: In a standoff with a suspect, he repeatedly insults the guy's manhood, prompting the perp to shoot Gideon instead of a female hostage.

The lowdown: Ed Bernero, one of the executive producers, told critics he is not fascinated by serial killers, but by those who "dedicate their lives to spending time around the worst-possible human beings." Storylines are based on real criminal cases, including that of the 1970s Trailside Killer in San Francisco. Once it settles into its regular time slot, "Criminal Minds" goes up against ratings-grabbing "Lost" -- and at that point, it will be lost.

Reality check: Patinkin's methodical intensity is believable, as is the profilers' brainstorming to unravel a depraved thought process. But it's hard not to recoil from the vicious nature of the crimes, even if most of the brutality occurs off camera.

-- Kathy Blumenstock

"Ghost Whisperer"

Fridays at 8 p.m. on CBS

The tagline you'll never see: Party of phantoms.

The basics: Since she was a little girl, newlywed Melinda Gordon (Jennifer Love Hewitt) has seen dead people. They're everywhere. Her paramedic husband, Jim (David Conrad), worries about his wife's sixth sense, while her best friend and business partner, Andrea (Aisha Tyler, who so deserves better), can't quite understand Melinda's gift. Between running her antiques business and chatting with Jim's deceased brother, Melinda must help the haunted -- and at times cranky -- people who haven't quite crossed over into the light.

The lowdown: In the face-off of God vs. ghosts, ghosts triumphed: "Ghost Whisperer" replaces the beloved "Joan of Arcadia," which CBS abruptly canceled in May after only two seasons. TV's next big thing Wentworth Miller (currently starring in Fox's "Prison Break") guest stars in the "Whisperer" pilot as a dead soldier trying to connect with his son. Miller is a busy guy: He also played Satan's minion in the final two episodes of "Joan."

Reality check: Cue the violins -- this melodramatic series sets out to be a tear-jerker. But former teen-queen Hewitt doesn't quite have the emotional gravitas to pull off the role. Even in crisis her hair is perfectly done and, like most gals on TV, she wakes up with flawless makeup. The faint attempts at comic relief mixed in with frightening sequences straight out of "The Shining" make for a confusing and ultimately uneven tone. Where is Haley Joel Osment when you need him?

-- Amy Amatangelo

"Killer Instinct"

Fridays at 9 p.m. on Fox

The tagline you'll never see: Kill this show.

The basics: Detective Jack Hale (Johnny Messner, last seen bribing Julie Cooper on "The O.C.") and his new partner, Ava Lyford (Marguerite Moreau, last seen giving Seth a comic book deal on "The O.C."), investigate the most heinous crimes in San Francisco. After a year-long leave of absence following his partner's death, Hale has returned to the Deviant Crime Unit. His boss, Lt. Matt Cavanaugh (Chi McBride), worries that the renegade detective who'll do anything to get a confession isn't ready to be back on the job.

The lowdown: Messner and Moreau turn in flat, lifeless performances, though it's possible things will improve when Kristin Lehman joins the cast in the second episode as a new detective. Lehman replaces Moreau, whose exit apparently will be explained. The pilot definitely sets up the fact that the departing Ava is up to something. But we can't help but wonder: Was this the plan all along, or was the show simply too cheap to reshoot the pilot?

Reality check: Yet another new fall show with horrific violence against pretty young women. First up, a man attacks his victims using giant creepy spiders that paralyze his prey. Remind us again why this is entertaining?

-- Amy Amatangelo

"Inconceivable"

Fridays at 10 p.m. on NBC

The tagline you'll never see: Three doctors and a test-tube baby.

The basics: The staff at the Family Options Fertility Clinic help hopeless parents-to-be have a child. Ming-Na, who scrubbed out of "ER" last season, stars as clinic co-founder Rachel Lu. Her partner, hunky cad Dr. Malcolm Bowers (Jonathan Cake) is excellent at his job, and he knows it. And a recent addition, the wealthy and renegade Dr. Nora Campbell (Angie Harmon), doesn't let a little thing like the law stop her. The show tries to have a something for everyone -- the gay couple having a baby via surrogate, the woman desperate to conceive and even a soldier who wants to unfreeze his dead wife's embryos.

The lowdown: The original pilot underwent a couple of procedures. Harmon was added to the cast. Ming-Na's real-life pregnancy will be worked into future episodes, and clumsily hidden via purses and coats before that. And don't get too attached to Alfre Woodard's psychologist role: She'll soon depart the clinic for Wisteria Lane. With a little nip and a tuck, the series is hoping to be as cutting edge as what you find on cable. But the pilot's surprise and mysterious ending is tonally out of place.

Reality check: Executive producers Oliver Goldstick and Marco Pennette were inspired to create this show after they both had children via less-traditional means. Although they are clearly impassioned about the timely topic, it's pretty, well, inconceivable -- sorry, we couldn't resist -- that viewers will take to this awkward dramedy.

-- Amy Amatangelo

New Reality Fare

"The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" and "Three Wishes" begin this week.

Returning series:

Sunday

* 7:30: King of the Hill, Fox

Monday

* 8: The King of Queens, CBS

* 8: Arrested Development, Fox

* 8: One on One, UPN

* 8: 7th Heaven, WB

* 8:30: All of Us, UPN

* 9: Two and a Half Men, CBS

* 9: Las Vegas, NBC

* 9: Girlfriends, UPN

* 9:30: Half & Half, UPN

* 10: CSI: Miami, CBS

* 10: Medium, NBC

Tuesday

* 8: According to Jim, ABC

* 8: NCIS, CBS

* 9:30: The Office, NBC

* 10: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NBC

Wednesday

* 8: Still Standing, CBS

* 8: America's Next Top Model, UPN

* 8:30: Yes, Dear, CBS

* 9: Lost, ABC

* 10: CSI: NY, CBS

* 10: Law & Order, NBC

Thursday

* 8: Joey, NBC

* 8:30: Eve, UPN

* 9: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS

* 9: The Apprentice, NBC

* 9: Cuts, UPN

* 10: ER, NBC

Friday

* 8: Supernanny, ABC

* 8: The Bernie Mac Show, Fox

* 10: Numb3rs, CBS

Saturday

* 10: 48 Hours Mystery, CBS

Your Take on Fall Fare

What do you think of the new shows? Chat about them with the TV Week staff Oct. 4 at 11 a.m. on washingtonpost.com.