September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

COSBY
We’re in the process of reinventing the show,” says new executive producer Tom Straw. ”Rather than farcical high jinks, we want more character-driven plots.” Along those lines, there’ll be less slapstick and more interaction between Bill Cosby’s Hilton and his latchkey-kid neighbor, Jurnee (Eve’s Bayou‘s Jurnee Smollett). Madeline Kahn’s New Agey Pauline will be toned down, and Phylicia Rashad’s long-suffering wife, Ruthie, will be tinkered with too. Says Straw, ”We don’t want her always to have her hand on her hip, rolling her eyes at Hilton.” We know the feeling.

SUDDENLY SUSAN
Susan (Brooke Shields) will finally start dating her editor, Jack (Judd Nelson), and Vicki (Kathy Griffin) is now married to a rabbi, Ben (Albie Selznick). But what America really wants to know is, What’s up with Judd Nelson’s hair? ”Jack’s hair is always a barometer of his mental stability,” explains exec producer Steven Peterman. ”For a while, he’s going to be on good behavior, so he’ll have nice hair. Once his hair starts acting up, you’ll know that the relationship is in trouble.” Too bad Shields can’t use the same system with balding real-life hubby Andre Agassi.

MELROSE PLACE
Andrew Shue, Alyssa Milano, Linden Ashby, Brooke Langton, and Lisa Rinna have moved out, while Days of Our Lives‘ Steve Wilder, The Untouchables‘ John Haymes Newton, and General Hospital‘s Rena Sofer are checking in. Expect the show to focus on Heather Locklear’s Amanda and feature less outlandish story lines, although executive producer Charles Pratt Jr. promises ”it’s going to be steamier than ever. We have our usual sexual-obsession stories, which are relatable with the stuff you see on Jerry Springer about the lengths people will go to bed the objects of their desire.” Josie Bissett’s Jane has returned — and reunited with ex-hubby Michael (Thomas Calabro). ”Michael changes into this softie,” says Bissett. ”It’s really cute, because you’re so used to him being such an a–hole.”

7TH HEAVEN
Sure, this drama about a minister (Stephen Collins) and his family seems squeaky clean, but it is an Aaron Spelling show, which means ”we’ll be dealing with everything from a new baby in the house to violence to drugs to sex,” says executive producer Brenda Hampton. And in the best Spelling tradition, there will be lots of surprises. ”In the first episode, there’s going to be something very unexpected,” teases teen dream Jessica Biel. ”It’s so secretive — you’ll totally bug out.” Don’t tell us — she’s a man!

CAROLINE IN THE CITY — Look for major changes as Caroline faces tough competition from Ally McBeal, Monday Night Football, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Lea Thompson’s titular cartoonist leaves home to work in an office with Del (Eric Lutes) and Charlie (Andy Lauer) and finally gets in romantic synch with cranky Richard (Malcolm Gets). But first, ”he’s going to have a period of getting a divorce,” says Thompson (Sofia Milos, who played Richard’s wife, Julia, has already left the show). ”We probably won’t consummate our relationship till sweeps.” What are the odds?

ALLY MCBEAL
When you’re Ally McBeal, the most exhaustively debated hit of the ’97-98 season (comedy or drama? role model or feminist’s nightmare?), what do you do for an encore? ”Nudity,” cracks Gil Bellows, a.k.a. Ally’s erstwhile beau Billy. Oh, like so pedestrian a thrill could shock fans of a show notorious for unisex bathrooms, wattle fetishes, dancing babies, and the erotic possibilities of sipping a cappuccino. Surely creator David E. Kelley can do better. ”You never know what’s gonna come out of David’s pen,” admits coexecutive producer Jeffrey Kramer.

Whatever it is, it’s golden: Ally, a consistent time-slot winner in the all-important 18-to-49 demo, was also blessed with 10 Emmy nods. At this point, even the most incredulous of the stars accept Kelley’s more eccentric devices. Courtney Thorne-Smith (Billy’s maddeningly patient wife, Georgia), for example, initially balked at the idea of coed toilets but now says, ”I don’t even bother to argue anymore.”

Yes, the bathroom will be back, as will Biscuit’s (Peter MacNicol) remote toilet flusher and Tracey Ullman’s theme-song-obsessed shrink. While the show will likely lose a chunk of its uncommonly large male audience to ABC’s Monday Night Football early in the season, the producers hope to hang on to a few with the addition of another babelicious attorney, Scream 2‘s Portia de Rossi. The inestimable John Ritter will guest-star as Elaine’s (Jane Krakowski) — then Ally’s — boyfriend in at least two episodes. Also, Ally and Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson) move into a duplex, and Billy and Georgia (”the normal people,” says Bellows) redecorate. ”Thank God,” Bellows adds. ”There were pinks and weird greens and the cheesiest curtains in our bedroom. No wonder they made love at the office.”

Expect one notable absence: ”The dancing baby was a delicious way to visualize Ally’s biological clock,” says Kramer. ”But it’s time to move on.” Bellows, for one, is thrilled. ”May it die a painful death.”

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