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Quality TV: Mission Possible?

The pleasant scents of flowers and potpourri mingle in the wide foyer of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, lending it a posh, well-scrubbed feel. But to those of us who've passed this way before, the smell means something else altogether: Nervous TV network executives. Jittery publicists. Intense producers. Clueless actors.

In session is the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, that annual rite of the season where your ever-hopeful critic searches for TV that really is worth watching.

Now that the syndicated programmers and cable channels have trotted out their wares, the real action begins this week with the broadcast networks.

Derided by some as a three-week cocktail party with celebrities (Fox's cable network sponsored a baseball game for critics and industry types at Dodger Stadium on Saturday), the tour sometimes struggles to remain relevant. The crowd of 200 critics is actually a bit smaller than in years past; a few media organizations are staying away to save money in an uncertain economy.

Last year, while critics traded quips with Bette Midler and Geena Davis, "reality TV" pioneers Survivor and Big Brother were busy redefining the shape of television.

Bette and The Geena Davis Show were canceled _ and mercifully so _ but that won't stop the networks from trotting out more of their ilk.

"My mother always said I have the attention span of a 2-year-old," said country star Reba McEntire, explaining why she's juggling a recording career and her new WB sitcom, Reba. (To judge from the pilot, she likely won't have this conflict for long.)

Already I've had an eyeful of the fall season, courtesy of preview tapes sent out by the networks for nearly all of the 35 or so prime time network shows coming this fall.

After countless hours watching Jim Belushi, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss and a host of lesser knowns, I had an overwhelming reaction:

Frustration. These guys still don't get it.

Just past a season where viewers swiftly rejected awful sitcoms built around well-known celebrities, NBC offers a series to chef Emeril Lagasse. Unlike Midler and Davis, he doesn't even act for a living. Nor is he the only big name with a dubious project to sell this fall.

And don't look for the small screen to improve its record on diversity. Just five of the new shows have ethnic minorities as stars. (The WB has practically eliminated its Sunday night lineup of black-centered comedies.) Instead, look for people of color in their usual sidekick roles.

Still, I saw enough in those preview tapes to keep up my interest in the season's offerings. No one really knows what makes a show work; it's the search for that special success-in-the-making that keeps us all energized in TV tour land. Among the trends I'll be tracking:

Fewer conventional comedies: Filmed with one camera, like a movie, these shows (inspired by Fox's hit Malcolm in the Middle) avoid the look of traditional sitcoms such as Friends or Frasier. One new show, the WB's Maybe It's Me, has crammed a bunch of devices into its pilot _ the star talking to the camera, fantasy sequences, no canned laughter and VH1 Pop-Up Video-style onscreen messages _ to lend a fresh feel.

More reality: Nine new "reality" shows are coming this fall, including sequels to the WB's Popstars, ABC's The Mole and Fox's Temptation Island, bringing us ever closer to Andy Warhol's pop culture prophecy.

Glimmers of hope: Some of the shows I found promising: Fox's 24, Sutherland's "real-time" drama about a government agent looking to stop an assassination attempt; the WB's Smallville, an ambitious retelling of Superman's teen years; and Scrubs, NBC's medical comedy that plays like Ed in a hospital. I'll keep you posted on whatever gems I find among the junk.

On Tuesday, I'll report to you on the WB's and UPN's plans.

If you have any questions about what's coming this fall, I'll do my best to get the stars and the suits to answer them. Please e-mail me at degganssptimes.com.

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