September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

CHICAGO HOPE
Was it just four years ago that medical dramaphiles anxiously awaited the bloody hospital showdown between Chicago Hope and ER? Nearly half a decade later, Drs. Ross, Greene, and Carter aren’t what’s plaguing the CBS medics. ”Fifth seasons can be dreadfully dull,” moans Hope exec producer John Tinker. Helping fight the fifth-year slump are more of the quirky twists we’ve come to expect (and, yeah, sometimes dread) from this Emmy award-winning series. ”Every third or fourth episode, you won’t know what you’re getting,” Tinker says. ”The shows that are out of the ordinary are the most successful for us.” This season, look for Lisa Catera (Stacy Edwards) to become a mini-celebrity after a televised surgery, Jack McNeil (Mark Harmon) to take on a new dysfunction (this time a relationship), and Kate Austin (Christine Lahti) to attempt that logical career leap from doctor to astronaut. ”Last season there was an earnestness that crept into my character because some of the guy writers didn’t understand her and judged her to be a bitch,” Lahti says. ”Now we have some women writers who really get her — and being a doctor in space will leave a lot of room for comedy.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be Chicago Hope without a cast change or two. With Peter Berg (Billy Kronk) preparing to bolt for a big-screen career (”I’ve done all the operations my character is smart enough to perform,” he says), indie-film boy Eric Stoltz is scrubbing in as Dr. Robert Yeats, a surgeon with a background in Eastern medicine. ”I’m a doctor who also happens to be a practicing Buddhist,” says Stoltz, a Hope and TV-series virgin prior to being offered the role. ”Other than that, who knows? I’m trying to be flexible and open to whatever may happen, and, like the Buddhists, to become more comfortable with not knowing. It’s like going on a blind date. I’m hopeful I might get lucky at the end of the evening.”

DHARMA & GREG
New time slot (a half hour earlier), new apartment, new…baby? Jenna Elfman’s yippie and Thomas Gibson’s yuppie move into a pad upstairs from Dharma’s old loft. ”We wanted to have some of Greg’s things, so it doesn’t just feel like her place,” says exec producer Dottie Dartland. But first they adopt a supermarket checkout girl’s infant. Says Gibson, ”The baby will get lots of oohs and ahhs, but not in a cheesy way.” Reassures Dartland, ”It’s gonna be different from Mad About You.” You mean, funny?

THE NANNY
Even though Fran (Fran Drescher) and Maxwell (Charles Shaughnessy) are married, ”she’s still a flashy girl from Flushing, and he’s still the uptight, cold British fish,” squawks Drescher. ”She’s noisier in the bedroom than he anticipated, and he won’t pee in front of her.” He will, however, impregnate her. ”I think Fran with morning sickness will be really funny,” says Drescher. (We’ll be the judge of that.) There’ll also be guest stars galore, including Whoopi Goldberg, and Drescher says she’s lined up the ”country singer who wears a hat — I can’t remember his name.” Garth Brooks will be thrilled.

BEVERLY HILLS 90210
During November sweeps, Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Valerie (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) head for the hills — but Dylan (Luke Perry) comes back! After Brandon and Kelly (Jennie Garth) break up, he takes a job in Washington, D.C. ”As Kelly and Brandon part, Jason’s pulling apart from the cast, so a lot of the dialogue makes me sad,” sniffles Garth, who’s also disappointed by his low-key exit: ”He should’ve blown up or something.” Laura Leighton and Vanessa Marcil hope to fill the vixen void left by Thiessen; the Melrose Place alum plays a Courtney Love-like fame seeker, while the General Hospital vet is a Tonya Harding-ish skater. Apt, since the only way 90210 will beat Dawson’s Creek is if somebody takes a tire iron to Katie Holmes’ knees.

TWO GUYS, A GIRL AND A PIZZA PLACE
”We’re making it less of a frat romp and tapping into more relatable issues,” says exec producer Danny Jacobson. To that end, Pete (Richard Ruccolo) finishes grad school, Sharon (Traylor Howard) ascends the corporate ladder, and med student Berg (Ryan Reynolds) embarks on — gasp! — a relationship. ”Being 24 is hard — I’m 21, and I know that,” says Reynolds. ”Half the guys I went to school with are living at home and playing videogames.” At least they’re not watching Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.

THE DREW CAREY SHOW
Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling routinely cast young babes as their TV girlfriends, but not Drew Carey. This season he’ll date a much older woman (a senior citizen), and ”Drew will have sex with Mimi [Kathy Kinney],” says exec producer Bruce Helford. ”We can’t tell you how.” Ewwwww! Drew auditions Slash, Lisa Loeb, Joe Walsh, Roy Clark, and Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine for his band, and there’ll be new jobs for Kate (Christa Miller), as a Jagermeister girl, and Oswald (Diedrich Bader), who’ll test breast implants — by getting them. Double ewwwww!

3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN
In last season’s finale, Phil Hartman’s Randy kidnapped Harry (French Stewart), but rather than recast the role, Hartman’s absence is explained. As the season opens, says cocreator Terry Turner, “Randy has lowballed Harry and sold him for a few thousand dollars to a carnival.” Meanwhile, Mary (Jane Curtin) gets promoted, making her the boss of John Lithgow’s Dick. (Guest star John Cleese may return to joust with Dick for Mary’s affection.) Speaking of affection, Sally (Kristen Johnston) finally loses her virginity to Don (Wayne Knight). Newman never had it so good.

PARTY OF FIVE
Significant Others may have flopped, but creators Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman are giving Scott Bairstow a second chance by casting him as the Stanford undergrad who comes between Julia (Neve Campbell) and her roommate. In other educational developments, Claudia (Lacey Chabert) heads to boarding school, and Bailey (Scott Wolf) drops out to live the life of a San Francisco restaurateur with on-again girlfriend Sarah (Jennifer Love Hewitt). During November sweeps, Charlie (Matthew Fox) and ex-stripper Daphne (Jennifer Aspen) welcome their baby (and PO5 gives birth to its 100th episode). But that’s not the only new addition: Little bro Owen will be played by Jacob Smith instead of twins Andrew and Steven Cavarno. ”We’re out of the infant stage,” says exec producer John Romano. ”We’ve found an exciting young actor.” Maybe the Cavarno boys can share a role on the Olsen twins’ new show.

STAR TREK: VOYAGER
Says exec producer Brannon Braga, ”Seven of Nine’s nanoprobes from her bloodstream infect the doctor’s mobile emitter, and a 29th-century Borg drone is born.” Huh? Here’s the stuff non-Trekkies might get: Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) gets drunk, Next Generation vet LeVar Burton directs the 100th episode, and Veronica’s Closet‘s Wallace Langham guests as (in Braga’s words) ”a kind of Winnie the Pooh of the future.” Oh, bother!

NEWSRADIO
Jon Lovitz steps in for late SNL pal Phil Hartman as WNYX’s new anchor, Max Lewis (Hartman’s Bill McNeal will have suffered a fatal heart attack when the season opens). Unlike bombastic Bill, ”Max wears his insecurities on his sleeve,” says executive producer Josh Lieb. Still, he adds, ”there’s going to be romantic intrigue with this new stud — it could be a real Betty and Veronica situation with Beth [Vicki Lewis] and Lisa [Maura Tierney].” In other News, Ben Stiller will guest as a security consultant hired by station owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root). Even though creator Paul Simms is only consulting this season, don’t look for a new NewsRadio. Says Lieb, ”If I say we’re changing the show, I’ll get hate mail from our three fans.”

LAW & ORDER
As usual, L&O‘s plotlines will be difficult to distinguish from New York Post headlines. Says exec producer Dick Wolf, ”We’re doing one about a man who’s killed while being dragged by a car, one about a mother-son murder team, and one about cops who get free use of prostitutes in midtown.” And, as usual, there’s a new cast member: Angie Harmon (C-16) as ADA Abbie Carmichael, a no-BS Texas transplant. ”The last thing I want to do is play her as the angry woman in power,” says the native Texan. ”She’s witty, she’s quick, and she’s got a great sense of humor. All of that comes from Texas, of course.”

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