When did Friday night television become so fascinating? Three of the new season's most promising network series debut tonight. And so does one of its bona fide stinkers.
- "Miss Match" (7 p.m., NBC) stars Alicia Silverstone as Kate Fox, an attorney working at her dad's (Ryan O'Neal) firm who would much rather play matchmaker than divorce lawyer. "Match" allows Silverstone to recapture the magic that made "Clueless" one of the signature movies of the 1990s. Like her character in that Jane Austen-inspired work, Kate is an empathetic meddler who seems blissfully oblivious to her own charms.
- "The Handler" (9 p.m., CBS) may be set in the gritty world of FBI undercover work, but it's really about acting -- or, more to the point, casting. Recent Emmy winner Joe Pantoliano stars as FBI agent Joe Renato. It's his job to train and monitor fellow agents who have gone deep undercover.
In "The Sopranos," Pantoliano had the difficult job of playing Ralph Cifaretto, a despicable character who was not without his funny, likable quirks. He's perfectly cast here as a tough, affable cop who inhabits a shadow world in which you can't tell the good guys from the bad.
- "Joan of Arcadia" (7 p.m., CBS) stars Amber Tamblyn as teenage visionary Joan Girardi. The middle child of a troubled family, Joan begins having challenging conversations with a hot teenage boy who assures her that he is God. Is she blessed? Or crazy?
Tamblyn does a nice job of capturing teenage boredom, confusion and angst without lapsing into "Dawson's Creek"-style cliches. Joan's "hallucinations" become one more worry for her police chief father (Joe Mantegna) and meddling mother (Mary Steenburgen), who have yet to recover from the accident that left their eldest son in a wheelchair.
- Here's a new Emmy category: worst performance by an actress playing herself. Kelly Ripa, a former soap star, does a truly dreadful job of playing Faith, a former soap star, on the hideously unoriginal new sitcom "Hope & Faith" (8 p.m., ABC). Co-star Faith Ford's fine performance as a dowdy stay-at-home mom is wasted here.
Tonight's other highlights
- The president visits the factory on the hourlong season premiere of "George Lopez" (7 p.m., ABC).
- Harm and Mac emerge from the wreckage of their plane crash on the ninth-season premiere of "JAG" (8 p.m., CBS).
- David moves in on "Life with Bonnie" (8:30 p.m., ABC).
- Scheduled on "Dateline" (8 p.m., NBC): the epidemic of binge drinking on college campuses.
- Vanessa Williams joins the cast of "Boomtown" (9 p.m., NBC).