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Fall TV preview: Thursday's returning shows

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DIAGNOSIS MURDER
CBS 8-9 PM Starts Sept. 23

Good news for everyone who was worried Diagnosis Murder was getting a lit-tle too gritty and edgy. ”We’re toning down any violence,” says the 73-year-old star, Dick Van Dyke. ”We found that there’s a pretty good-size audience out there that doesn’t want to see sex and violence.”

Maybe we haven’t been watching closely enough (in fact, we know we haven’t), but since when did DM start kickin’ it Oz-style? No matter. It’s nice to know the six-year-old CBS staple will steer clear of beheadings and bare butts. After all, this show — which follows the adventures of mystery-solving physician Mark Sloan (Van Dyke) — is the lone heir to the Murder, She Wrote mantle of breezy, family-friendly homicide. A greedy couple kills the bride’s rich father at a wedding? Dr. Sloan figures it out in 50 minutes. Sure, we may not commit to Murder every week, but it’s good to have it around — sort of like your grandmother in Florida.

As TV vet Van Dyke points out, ”In today’s terms, we are not hip. But I think some of the shows have gone so far through hip they’ve come out the other side, and they’re square again. We’re liable, just by default, to become hip again.” Exactly.

Here’s what else is happening with CBS’ default hipster show: It now airs in the apropos 8 p.m. time slot (which pits it against Friends); it’ll get a new cast member, Joanna Cassidy (Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead), playing a hospital administrator who embarks on a Moonlighting-style flirtation with Dr. Sloan; and it gets an alarming influx of Van Dykes. In addition to writer-costar/DVD’s son Barry, brother Jerry will make an appearance as a crazed hypochondriac, and 20-year-old grandson Shane will pop up as a new medical student. ”He looks a little bit like Brad Pitt,” says proud pop Barry.

And then there’s new executive producer Chris Abbott (late of UPN’s Legacy), who promises to rein in the wackiness that somehow crept into the show — in the last two seasons, everyone from aliens to Kathie Lee Gifford has appeared on Murder. ”We went in a couple different wild directions,” sighs Barry.

Abbott will concentrate on keeping the show’s cheerfully gentle retro quality intact. As she says, ”I saw a review of some show recently, and it said it had ‘a wonderful dark quality.’ And I said, why is dark wonderful? Why do you never see ‘It has a wonderful light quality’?” Okay, here goes: Diagnosis Murder has a wonderful light quality. — A.J. JACOBS

FRIENDS
NBC, 8-8:30 p.m.

The question on everyone’s lips: After their surprise Vegas wedding, will Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) stay married? ”All I can say is we’ll deal with it in the first four episodes,” demurs cocreator Marta Kauffman. Meanwhile, the sextet plays musical roomies: Chandler (Matthew Perry) moves in with Monica (Courteney Cox), and Rachel lives with Ross, then Phoebe, then Joey ”until she finds a home.” Doesn’t sound like marital bliss to us. (Sept. 23)

JESSE
NBC, 8:30-9 p.m.

Christina Applegate’s sophomore sitcom gets a face-lift as her dad and brothers disappear, and her single-mom character takes a job as an aide at a university health center. There she’ll clash with a prickly nurse (George & Leo‘s Darryl Theirse) and flirt with a young doctor (Everything’s Relative‘s Kevin Rahm). Fear not, Bruno Campos lovers: Diego is still around. So are Jesse’s confidantes Linda (Liza Snyder) and Carrie (Jennifer Milmore); the latter now works at the local zoo. Says new exec producer Wil Calhoun, “There’s a story in which she’s having problems with a monkey.” Hey, it worked on Friends. (Sept. 23)

FRASIER
NBC, 9-9:30 p.m.

No matter what we do, people are going to be disappointed,” says exec producer Christopher Lloyd. “We have one group that’s clamoring for change, and then others who scream if we change the way Niles parts his hair.” Nonetheless, the seventh season will find Frasier (Kelsey Grammer, above) helping Daphne (Jane Leeves) plan her wedding to Donny (Saul Rubinek), and dating a lady who’s a dead ringer for his mom. Plus, Bebe Neuwirth’s Lilith returns in a special Thanksgiving-night telecast. Who’s disappointed? (Sept. 23)

CHICAGO HOPE
CBS, 9-10 p.m.

With Mandy Patinkin and David E. Kelley back on duty part-time and the addition of Lauren Holly, Carla Gugino, and Barbara Hershey, “you’re going to feel like, ‘My God, I’m seeing a brand-new show,'” says exec producer Michael Pressman. What you won’t see are ex-cast members Peter Berg, Jayne Brook, Vondie Curtis Hall, and Christine Lahti. Will Hershey fill the tough-woman void? Says Pressman, “She’ll be the opposite of the Christine Lahti character in the sense that her strength will be her femininity.” Ouch! (Sept. 23)

FAMILY GUY
Fox, 9-9:30 p.m.

Guest voices galore: Sam Waterston (as the dog’s therapist), Norm Macdonald (as Death), Kiss, and the entire cast of Murphy Brown (as … Kiss and the cast of Murphy Brown). Creator Seth MacFarlane says his ‘toon’s second season will be another offend-apalooza: “I don’t think any minority group — or majority group — will be happy.” (Sept. 16)

CHARMED
The WB, 9-10 p.m.

It’s bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble for the witch sibs as Prue (Shannen Doherty) gets trapped inside a painting, Phoebe (Alyssa Milano) keeps job-hopping, and Piper (Holly Marie Combs) runs a nightclub. “She’ll do different theme nights,” says executive producer Connie Burge. “Like ’80s Big Hair Night.” We’re guessing there’s no 90210 night. (Sept. 30)

ER
NBC, 10-11 p.m.

George Clooney’s gone, but there’s plenty of new blood. Recurring players will include Risky Business‘ Rebecca De Mornay (as a patient of Noah Wyle’s Dr. Carter) and M*A*S*H vet Alan Alda (as an attending physician). Returning will be Ming-Na (reprising her first-season role as Deb Chen) and Paul McCrane (thorny Dr. Romano). Two alums of acclaimed NBC casualties also join full-time: NewsRadio‘s Maura Tierney as a nurse and Homicide‘s Michael Michele as a pediatric/ER resident. Oh, and Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) is due to deliver twins for November sweeps. Can all these folks make up for the loss of Dr. Ross? “It’s not hard to fill the void,” insists coexecutive producer Neal Baer. “It’s like in life — people move away, and new people move in.” Not that they’d turn George down if he wanted to scrub in for a guest shot. (Sept. 30)

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