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Turning smoke to shake up Viewers

This fall season is like no other. Many returning shows are coming off hobbled seasons thanks to the writers' strike.  Here's a look at what some hot shows have planned.
Image: Desperate Housewives
"Housewives" fans are hoping the show's leap into the future isn't a "Desperate" move.ABC
/ Source: contributor

This fall season is like no other. Many returning shows are coming off hobbled seasons — or, in the case of "Heroes," half-seasons — thanks to the writers' strike.

With "Lost"and beloved but low-rated "Friday Night Lights"not coming back to regular television until midseason ("FNL"will be back sooner if you have DirectTV), what's in store for the rest of the more buzzed-about shows?

(Spoiler warning: If you don't want to know what might happen on returning shows, stop reading now.)

"The Office"
The strike seemed especially hard on the rhythm of "The Office." The NBC comedy is used to giving a careful, slow build to both its personal stories, such as the Jim/Pam and Michael/Jan relationships, and its business stories, including Ryan's transition from bored temp to corporate coke addict.

THE OFFICE -- \"Did I Stutter\" Episode #4016 -- Pictured: Steve Carell as Michael Scott -- NBC Photo: Chris HastonChris Haston

Fans will remember that Jim's attempt to propose to Pam was interrupted by Andy's very public proposal to Angela. Pam apparently headed off to a three-month stint at art school in New York without the question being popped. She'll still be there when the season opens, with Rich Sommer of "Mad Men" showing up as a classmate. As for Angela's engagement, how long can gossipy Phyllis be expected to keep quiet about catching Angela with Dwight?

Toby's departure left a spot open in HR, at least temporarily filled by Holly (Amy Ryan), with whom Michael became instantly infatuated. It appeared that Holly might not entirely reject him — but then he discovered that Jan had become pregnant via a sperm donor. Amy Ryan is reportedly on board for at least five episodes, so she's not fleeing Michael's clumsy affections quite yet. But Melora Hardin recently said that fans would get to see both the rest of Jan's pregnancy and how she fares as a mother, so Michael will likely continue to shoot himself in the foot labeled "Possible Relationship With Holly" using the gun labeled "Unhealthy Attachment To Jan."

Fans all know the big news: William Petersen, who has played Gil Grissom since "CSI"premiered in 2000, will depart after 10 episodes and effectively be replaced by the Oscar-nominated Laurence Fishburne.

\"Two and a Half Deaths\" -- Grissom (William Petersen, right) and David Phillips (David Berman, left) become involved in the world of Hollywood comedy when a diva sitcom star (Katey Sagal, on floor) meets an untimely demise with a rubber chicken while filming her show in Las Vegas, on CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION, Thursday, May 8 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS. © 2008 CBS Broadcastingl Inc., All Rights ReservedRobert Voets / CBS ENTERTAINMENT

Fishburne, who reportedly had never watched "CSI" before being approached to join, will play a new character with roots in academia who succumbs to the obvious charms of splatter patterns and fiber analysis. Petersen and Fishburne will appear together in two episodes before Petersen hits the road.

"CSI" is also dealing with the departure of Gary Dourdan, who played Warrick Brown, shot by the wicked undersheriff in the season finale. (While the shooting was presented as a live-or-die cliffhanger, sort of, Dourdan's departure is one of the worst-kept secrets in television.) Jorja Fox, on the other hand, whose Sara Sidle bolted in late 2007, reportedly will be back — albeit briefly.

It should be a turning-point season for the show: Fishburne is a well-respected actor and producers say they wanted him desperately. But there's an open question about whether, like "Law & Order," "CSI" can withstand a lot of cast turnover or whether, like "The X-Files," too much investigator shuffle signals the beginning of the end.

"Desperate Housewives"
One of the most surprising spring finales came from "Desperate Housewives," which leapt forward five years in the closing moments, suddenly finding Susan with a new guy (Gale Harold, of "Queer As Folk"), Gabby with children, Bree back with Orson and running a successful business, and Lynette still fighting an apparently losing battle with her own troublemaking brats.

The five-year jump is sticking in the fall; this is no temporary glitch in the space-time continuum. Susan's now-former husband Mike will still be around, though not with Susan. While the changes may be jarring for viewers, jumping forward could be a smart choice. "Housewives" doesn't rely on tightly respected realism; it's a cartoon, and when you run out of cartoon scenarios, you need new ones, and you get them however you can.

Last season marked big changes on "House" as Cameron, Chase and Foreman moved on to new roles and House picked up new assistants through a too-long but mostly interesting "Apprentice"-style process. (He also got Foreman back in the end.) But by the close of the season, Amber, one of the candidates who wasn't chosen, played the biggest part in the devastating finale.

HOUSE: Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House. The fifth season of HOUSE premieres Tuesday, Sept. 16 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2008 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Timothy White/FOX

Amber, who had become Wilson's girlfriend after flunking out with House for being too much like him, was killed by a fatal combination of flu medicine and trauma-induced kidney failure after she came to rescue a drunk House from a bar and they wound up in a bus crash. Wilson, House's best friend — perhaps his only real friend — will presumably take some time to forgive House for his part in setting up the circumstances that led to her death. Previews suggest that the freeze-out is not total: House and Wilson are talking, but Wilson is threatening to pack up and leave the hospital, if not the state.

Meanwhile, Thirteen learned at the end of the season that she has the gene for Huntington's Disease, the same debilitating disorder that killed her mother, so viewers can expect fallout from that. Showrunner David Shore has also promised a new character: a private detective who will help House with the breaking and entering into patient's homes that he enjoys so much. As for Cameron and Chase, who showed up erratically last season in frustratingly fleeting ways, Shore told the Star-Ledger in an interview this summer that he's still working on ways to use them better. Hopefully, no more bus accidents.

"How I Met Your Mother"
In the conventional sense, the big cliffhanger of the season finale was Ted's proposal to maybe-mother, maybe-not Stella (Sarah Chalke). She's got to say yes, or no, or maybe, so the ramifications of the proposal presumably reverberate in the early episodes.

\"Do I Know You\" -- As Stella responds to Ted's (Josh Radnor) proposal, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) realizes that he's in love with Robin (Cobie Smulders), on the fourth season premiere of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, Monday, Sept. 22 (8:30-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Eric McCandless/FOX ©2008 Fox Television. All Rights Reserved.Eric Mccandless / CBS ENTERTAINMENT

More intriguing, however, was the moment when Barney, laid up after an accident, implied with a jarringly warm gaze that he has realized that he may be in love with Robin — the only woman he has ever treated as a "bro." In a great example of a show being limber and smart enough to capitalize on chemistry it didn't anticipate, the show will be challenged to give Barney a new dimension without messing with any of the existing, awesome ones.

Regis Philbin is already confirmed for a guest appearance, and Chalke will be around for at least the first handful of episodes. Nobody seems to know for sure whether she's the mother, and hints drop in all directions. Producer Craig Thomas also recently confirmed that this season will find Robin moving in with Ted for at least some period of time. How that will be accomplished remains to be seen, but with Jason Segel ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall") and Neil Patrick Harris ("Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog") having had very big summers, the show comes back with some natural buzz that will perhaps allow it to take its rightful place well ahead of "Two And A Half Men" in the national consciousness.

"Grey's Anatomy"
One of the most uneven shows on television, "Grey's" tends to seesaw wildly between affecting (if soapy) plotlines and poorly conceived whinefests. Last season was no exception. The George/Izzie romance was a total bust and wrecked several formerly likable characters, while the loss of Addison to her own show — where she inexplicably turned into a buffoon — hurt the show's delicate balance between moping and straight talk.

GREY'S ANATOMY - \"Freedom\" - On the two-hour season finale of \"Grey's Anatomy,\" Meredith and Derek have one last shot at a successful outcome in their clinical trial, as the other surgeons work together to free a boy from a hardening block of cement. Meanwhile, Izzie helps Alex care for an ailing Rebecca, and Lexie discovers critical information about George's intern status, on \"Grey's Anatomy,\" THURSDAY, MAY 22 (9:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/MICHAEL DESMOND) SARA RAMIREZ, BROOKE SMITH, SANDRA OH, JAMES IMMEKUS

But by the end of the season, things seemed to be righting themselves. George and Izzie mercifully put an end to their romance, Izzie stopped fretting long enough to take the helm at the clinic, Richard wised up and got his wife back, and Meredith and Derek finally got it together, not that this was preceded by her learning to shut up, which will never, ever happen. All indications are that Derek and Meredith will, at least for a while, be together rather than eternally apart, or apart-and-together, or whatever it is they've been.

Lesbian kisses on network TV are notoriously exploitative in tone, but the one between Callie and Hahn in the finale was actually fairly convincing. It grew out of an actual relationship rather than out of a desire to have two girls smooch for sweeps. It'll be interesting to see where that relationship goes.

Kevin McKidd, most recently of NBC's failed "Journeyman," is playing the hospital's newest hot doctor, and rumors connect him to Cristina, so perhaps she's ready for her first big personal story since the departure of Burke. All in all, the show seems to be set for a season in which some of the central female characters do more than blow up their relationships and gripe at each other about men, which would be a welcome change.

Remember this show? About people with special powers? It was huge in its 2006-2007 premiere season, but there hasn't been a new episode since December 2007.

In this undatedphoto released by NBC, actor Masi Oka as Hiro Nakamura is shown in a scene from the \"How To Stop An Exploding Man\" episode of the \"Heroes\" television series. The show was nominated for an Emmy award Thursday, July 19, 2007, in the best-drama category. (AP Photo/NBC, Chris Haston)NBC

Rather than try to pack in a mini-season after the writers' strike, "Heroes" simply never returned at all, meaning that the cliffhanger from last December is the cliffhanger where we find ourselves when the show returns almost ten months later for "Volume Three," which the show is calling, "Villains."

Specifically, at last check-in, viewers saw the revival of big-time villain Sylar, who regained at least some of his powers and started moving things around with his mind. Not good news. Meanwhile, Nathan Petrelli was shot during a press conference, the outbreak of a killer virus was barely avoided, and bad-guy Adam was buried alive.

The premiere of the "Villains" chapter was screened at Comic-Con, so a fair amount is known about what's coming. Without spoiling any specifics, expect to see more time-bending between past and future, the surprising answer to who shot Nathan, and efforts on Sylar's part to continue the healing process. Kristen Bell will be back as the electricity-producing Elle, as will David Anders as the supposedly-buried-alive Adam. (This is a show where death is as temporary as a magazine subscription.)

Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington, D.C.