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Fall TV preview: Friday returning shows

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PROVIDENCE
NBC 8-9 PM Starts Sept. 24

Don’t expect the powers that be at Providence, NBC’s saintly sleeper hit, to mess with success in its second season. As creator John Masius puts it, ”There wasn’t much that was broken, so there’s not a lot to fix.”

While cranky critics may beg to differ (one even christened the unabashedly sentimental drama ”must-flee TV”), Masius and crew are obviously doing something right. Since its January bow, the series — in which follicularly blessed plastic surgeon Sydney Hansen (Melina Kanakaredes) trades performing tummy tucks in L.A. for firming up familial ties back East — has become the Peacock’s highest-rated new drama since ER. Even more impressive, Providence has managed to draw young women to NBC’s traditionally male-skewing Friday night (it even finished the season ahead of Ms. McBeal in the desirable distaff demo). The show’s rapid rise also prompted the other nets to sprinkle their fall schedules with female-friendly dramas, including CBS’ Judging Amy, which just happens to focus on a follicularly blessed corporate lawyer (Amy Brenneman) who chucks a lucrative practice in New York City in favor of — that’s right — familial bonding back home in Connecticut. Cracks Masius, ”Imitation is the sincerest form of television.” Maybe. But the ultimate sign that Providence has arrived? ”The Hansen house is now part of the Universal Studios tour!” says Kanakaredes. ”That’s pretty wild.”

Another jaw-dropper: In under eight months, the 32-year-old Kanakaredes has gone from being ”that actress with the tongue-twister last name” to a question on Jeopardy! to the female lead in Robert De Niro’s new flick, Fifteen Minutes. ”I’ve been working 30 days straight,” she says, ”trying to finish the movie in New York and shoot Providence in L.A. At this point, I’m ready for Syd to play patient and just be in a coma.”

Masius, however, has other plans for the good doctor: Look for Syd to move out of chez Hansen, leaving Dad (Mike Farrell), sis Joanie (Paula Cale), and kid bro Robbie (Seth Peterson) to fend for themselves. A two-hour Thanksgiving episode will focus — à la It’s a Wonderful Life — on how things would’ve been if Mom (Concetta Tomei) hadn’t died. And finally, ”Syd might actually have sex!” says Kanakaredes. The most likely suspect: her cancer-stricken high school sweetheart, Kyle (Tom Verica), who may lose an arm to the disease. ”That would certainly be the bold choice,” says Verica. ”But I don’t know if the network is prepared to see Syd [making love to] a one-armed man.” — SHAWNA MALCOM

THE HUGHLEYS
ABC, 8-8:30 p.m.

D.L. Hughley’s second-year sitcom may be joining the TGIF lineup, but it won’t be turning into a kiddie show. Episodes will tackle the hot-button issues of racial conflict (a Korean-American family moves into the neighborhood), school violence (the children fear it — ”You move to the suburbs for safety, and then something like [Columbine] happens,” says Hughley, above), and absentee fathers (D.L. tracks down his biological dad, just as the star recently did in real life). ”I’m taking my family’s life experiences and telling millions of people about them every week,” says Hughley. ”Here I am, a guy without a high school diploma, and I got my own TV show. Right or wrong, I’m doing the show that I want to do.” (Sept. 24)

BOY MEETS WORLD
ABC, 8:30-9 p.m.

In its seventh season, the series moves further from sitcomland and ever closer to soapville: Cory (Ben Savage) and Topanga (Danielle Fishel) postpone their wedding after her parents decide to divorce, Rachel (Maitland Ward) and Jack (Matthew Lawrence) break up, and Shawn (Rider Strong) and Angela (Trina McGee-Davis) wrestle with his fear of commitment. In other grappling news, “one of the top three names in wrestling will guest-star,” teases executive producer Bob Tischler. “But I can’t say who.” Could it be Jesse “The Body” Ventura — or would that make it Boa Meets World? (Sept. 24)

SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH
ABC, 9-9:30 p.m.

Melissa Joan Hart will see her spell caster turn 18 in the season premiere — which means it’s almost time for a title change, no? The series will attempt to attract a slightly older audience with the addition of a few new characters, including African-American witch Dreama (China Shavers), white Persian cat Juliette (a love interest for Salem), and Josh (Blossom‘s David Lascher), the boss at a coffee shop where Sabrina gets a job. “It’s a Sam-and-Diane thing — we bicker, but there’s an attraction underneath,” says Lascher. “It’s always interesting when two people are attracted to each other.” Well, not always. (Sept. 24)

NASH BRIDGES
CBS, 10-11 p.m.

The swinging-bachelor San Francisco cop (Don Johnson) is finally ready to settle down — and considering it’s with Yasmine Bleeth’s Caitlin, who can blame him? Of course, they’ll still have to share living quarters with Nash’s crusty dad (James Gammon). And from the Just Try and Get Away from These Guys department: World Wrestling Federation superstar “Stone Cold” Steve Austin will reprise his recurring role as maverick undercover cop Jake Cage. “We’re hoping to capitalize on the success of last season, when we were up 6 percent, which is no small feat in an era of diminishing audiences for most shows,” brags executive producer Carlton Cuse. “We also knocked off Homicide, which has perennially been a critic’s favorite.” Rub it in, whydontcha? (Sept. 24)

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