By RICK KUSHMAN
‘American Idol’ returns tonight.
Finally, we’ve hit a big, big week in TV. Unless you’re watching NBC. No, wait, even that network — in fourth place and dropping — starts something great this week: “Friday Night Lights.”
Already, ABC’s “Scrubs” and FX’s “Nip/Tuck” have returned to TV (on Tuesdays), FX’s “Damages” is back (on Wednesdays), and Fox’s “24” blasted back on Sunday.
Plus, HBO and Showtime have fresh lineups this weekend, and tonight “Fox’s “American Idol” returns, officially putting TV at full strength. Here are some of the highlights of what’s coming in this week’s What to Watch (or Not).
“American Idol” (8 p.m. on Fox): What do you need to know? If you’re a fan, you’re a fan. If you’re not, no one’s gonna convince you. Me, I say it may be lightweight, but it’s fun.
Season Eight starts the goofy audition rounds with two hours in Phoenix on Tuesday and two more in Kansas City on Wednesday. You surely know by now there will be a fourth judge — producer/songwriter Kara DioGuardi.
In other news, the semi-final will have 36 singers instead of 24, the judges will pick some wild-card finalists for the top 12, Simon is still Simon, Randy is still Dawg, and Paula is still, you know, something. The party’s on.
“Chopped” (10 p.m. on Food Network): The charming Ted Allen hosts this cross between “Iron Chef” and “Top Chef.” Four up-and-comers each week must make three-course meals featuring odd ingredients. One gets eliminated after each course. Winner gets $10,000. Tuesday’s ingredients are octopus, duck and animal crackers. I’m hoping the octopus isn’t for the dessert.
“Make ’Em Laugh” (8 p.m. on PBS): PBS starts an entertaining and funny six-hour look at humor in show business, from stand-up and movies to sitcoms and late-night TV.
The series runs in two-hour segments over the next three Wednesdays and is a winner on so many levels. While it’s always hard to dissect humor and not sound lame, there’s still plenty in here that’s smart and revelatory.
It’s also nostalgic, has interviews with some of the funniest people alive (Matt Groening says Bart Simpson is actually the son of Eddie Haskell) and includes some killer clips.
“Lost” (8 p.m. on ABC): Calm down. The season starts next week, but in case anyone needs to see it again, ABC’s running the two-hour finale from last season when all kinds of, uh, stuff happens.
“CSI” (9 p.m. on CBS): This is it, the sad night of nights for TV’s best performing drama over the past nine seasons. William Peterson, who as Gil Grissom has been the emotional center and the soul of the show, is leaving. He’ll be replaced in terms of star power by Laurence Fishburne, who made a classy, powerful entrance in December.
“The Beast” (10 p.m. on A&E): Patrick Swayze stars in an overdone cop drama about an unconventional (of course) undercover FBI agent teaching his naive (of course) rookie partner how to survive on the mean streets. Swayze’s character is, say it with me, under investigation by his own FBI. It’s not horrible but there isn’t much new.
“Battlestar Gallactica” (10 p.m. on Sci-Fi): The midseason ended with an inspiring triumph of cooperation, reason over prejudice, and discovery. Then they got to Earth and, uh-oh, someone’s been playing with nuclear bombs. Now they must deal with it, and some do better than others. This starts the last 10 episodes of this stellar series.
“Friday Night Lights” (10 p.m. on NBC): It’s the Season Three opener for broadcast television. This comes only two days after the season finishes on DirectTV, and now NBC repeats it all for broadcast. But for the majority of fans, it’s, as they say, new to you. And great as ever.
“The Mentalist” (8 p.m. on CBS): This is CBS’ hottest show, so the network is giving the rookie cop drama a Sunday run after the AFC championship game.
“Big Love” (9 p.m. on HBO): Finally, this is back with the usual intense domestic issues, times three.
“The L Word” (9 p.m. on Showtime): The sixth and final season starts with the repercussions from the death of a main character.
“Flight of the Conchords” (10 p.m. on HBO): New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk band, Bret and Jemaine, are back with their dry, and very funny, deadpan confusion. For openers, they’ve decided they don’t need Murray to manage them.
“United States of Tara” (10 p.m. on Showtime): Toni Collette plays Tara, a multiple-personality housewife who revolves through being a prim mother, a bratty teen and a tough biker, among others. This was created by Diablo Cody and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg.
“Secret Diary of a Call Girl” (10:30 on Showtime): It’s back for Season Two, and it’s racy, cheeky and sometimes, sincerely earnest. Also, this is definitely a pay cable show.