September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

HOMICIDE
The biggest mystery on Homicide: Life on the Street this season is, can the show survive without Emmy nominee Andre Braugher? ”He’s the man,” says die-hard fan Michael Michele, a new member of the ensemble this season. ”But guess what? Giancarlo Esposito is no slouch.”

Esposito (Do the Right Thing, Bakersfield P.D.) joins the cast as FBI agent Mike Giardello, agita-provoking son of Yaphet Kotto’s Lieut. Al Giardello. ”We had made Al half black and half Italian, and Giancarlo truly is half black and half Italian, so I thought, Why not take advantage of this instead of pretending he’s Czechoslovakian?” says exec producer Tom Fontana. Adds Esposito, ”It means a lot to me, because TV is not really accommodating to mixed-race people.”

Michele will play Det. Rene Sheppard, a fugitive-division transfer who pairs off with Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson). ”Meldrick’s coming off a divorce, so they’re sniffing around each other,” says Fontana. It’s a big step up from her role as an art-gallery owner on the flop CBS soap Central Park West. ”They blew that thing up to be the second coming, and it fell just as hard,” recalls Michele. ”This part is much closer to who I am.”

There’s one more new full-time squad member: Recurring guest star Toni Lewis becomes a regular as Det. Terri Stivers, who’ll team with Jon Seda’s Paul Falsone. Meanwhile, after recovering from his near-fatal shooting, Kyle Secor’s Tim Bayliss gets into Zen and annoys new partner Munch (Richard Belzer). The ratings-challenged Homicide also plans several stunts, including a guest spot by Aerosmith’s Joe Perry (as a D.C. narcotics cop!) and another crossover with Law & Order, slated for February.

Overall, ”we seem to be dealing a little bit more with people’s feelings instead of the usual cosmic questions we tackle,” says Fontana. ”Fathers and sons, boyfriends and girlfriends, that kind of thing. Love comes to Homicide.”

BOY MEETS WORLD
Isn’t it time for this show to change its title? As the sitcom enters its sixth season, Ben Savage’s Cory is starting college; he’s not exactly a boy anymore. Especially since, in the two-part opener, he’s pondering a marriage proposal from his girlfriend, Topanga (Danielle Fishel). Just because Cory and his pals graduated from high school, don’t think that their imperious teacher Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) is out of the picture. He’ll join them at college — as a student — where he’ll meet an associate dean played by Bonnie Bartlett (Daniels’ real-life spouse and onetime St. Elsewhere costar). ”I’d just like for my character to maintain his dignity,” says Daniels. ”I don’t want to be Mr. Belvedere.” Who does?

GETTING PERSONAL
In the first episode, I’m going to catch on fire, and in the second episode, I’m not going to have my pants, which I’m really excited about,” cracks Jon Cryer, who costars with Vivica A. Fox and Duane Martin in this Chicago-set sitcom. But can Fox get viewers excited about this show — which failed to ignite the Nielsens last spring — in its new Friday slot? Exec producer Jeff Strauss hopes so: ”If people are tired after a long work week, if they want to kick back and see something funny and try to loosen up before Millennium comes on — well, we’re there for them.” Cryer is even more confident, boldly proclaiming, ”Boy Meets World is toast!”

SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH
No longer content to be an adolescent Bewitched, Sabrina tackles such tough issues as gambling (Salem the Cat picks up this bad habit), drug abuse (Sabrina gets hooked on pancakes, which are highly addictive to witches), and…flatulence? That’s right, Sabrina cuts one in class to make a friend who made a fool out of herself feel less embarrassed. ”I was like, ‘No way, I won’t do that!”’ recalls star Melissa Joan Hart. ”Then I read the script and I was like, ‘No way, this is so funny!”’ Will ABC’s censors let it fly? Yup, says exec producer Paula Hart (Melissa Joan’s mom): ”They said it’s okay because it’s a magical fart.” No way!

LOVE BOAT: THE NEXT WAVE
In its new, later time slot, ”we’re going to be sexier, campier, quirkier,” says captain Robert Urich. ”They want a little undercurrent of sexual tension with Joan Severance and me. We’re talking handcuffs and everything.” We must have missed the episode when Gavin MacLeod’s Capt. Merrill Stubing got into bondage. At any rate, this is not your father’s Boat. ”We were criticized, ‘Why would you bring back The Love Boat — it wasn’t any good the first time,”’ admits Urich. ”But just because there were all those bad World War II movies, that didn’t prevent Steven Spielberg from doing Saving Private Ryan.” Maybe Cap’n Bob’s been out at sea too long.

NASH BRIDGES
Cheech and Don see their lives go up in smoke as Joe (Cheech Marin) accidentally burns down his house and must move into a building owned by Nash (Don Johnson), whose girlfriend gets killed (Kelly Hu is leaving the show to costar in creator Carlton Cuse’s new CBS series, Martial Law). Wait, it gets worse: Nash loses all his cash after his corrupt accountant commits suicide. ”He finds himself doing things he wouldn’t do in a million years to pay for his daughter’s college,” says Cuse. Like what? ”He helps a Cher impersonator hunt down another Cher impersonator who stole her wig and her Sonny. Nash’s attitude is, there’s nowhere lower to go.” Well, there’s always UPN.

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