PASADENA, Calif. – The air conditioning broke in the middle of a heat wave. The Internet went down on the last day of the tour. And yet, it seemed nothing could stop the relentlessly upbeat vibe as the nation’s TV critics wrapped up their 18-day network previews.

And why was that? Because we know we’ve got plenty to write about between now and Christmas.

Journalists blogged from their tables and trudged through parties filling their voice recorders with quotes from the stars and creators of the shows that produced, many agreed, the best development season TV has had in 12 years.

If anyone had a right to complain, it was the scribe who gained perspective when his market was wiped off the map. But even Dave Walker, critic of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, agreed that there’s a lot of worthwhile TV coming our way this fall.

So a word to the wise: If you have been putting off that special purchase, whether a high-def television temple for the living room or a recorder to capture two shows at the same time, this would be the time to take the plunge.

Consider Monday night at 10, when “CSI: Miami” on CBS will go up against the brightest new drama of the fall season, NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” an exhilarating romp through the backstage of big-time network TV from “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin.

Or how about 9 p.m. Tuesday nights. This typically brutal time slot will be simply unmanageable without a TiVo, as the two best new comedies of the season, both on ABC – robbery-high-jinks caper “The Knights of Prosperity” and self-help spoof “Help Me Help You” – charge into the teeth of CBS’ “The Unit,” NBC’s time-shifted “Criminal Intent” and Fox’s oddly romantic hostage drama, “Standoff.” (Heaven help CW’s beloved “Veronica Mars”: She’s also on Tuesdays at 9.)

Of course, being able to save these shows on a machine doesn’t mean you’ll be able to save these shows from the ax. But take heart – even if your love for, say, the sweetly sophisticated comedy “Ugly Betty” is unrequited (it’s up against “Ghost Whisperer” and “Crossing Jordan” Fridays at 8), chances are good you’ll get to see at least the first 13 episodes, if not on ABC, then on ABC Family, or on DVD.

NBC, in particular, is serving up a host of terrific new programs, well-written and engagingly made. I could see myself getting hooked by two NBC shows clearly aimed at people half my age: “Heroes,” about young people just discovering their superpowers; and “Friday Night Lights,” where small-town dramas are amplified by big-time high-school football.

Even prime-time football is going to be better this season. NBC will not only get to pick the contests that will air at the end of the season – in previous years ABC’s games were scheduled well in advance, and often wound up pitting two teams with losing records – but the telecast is moving to Sunday nights, where, as NBC’s Dick Ebersol noted the other day, games can start earlier.

Speaking of early starts, Fox will kick off the season Aug. 20, about three weeks from now, with “Justice,” a dazzling new crime show that challenges the fundamental tenet of “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf, who has assured TV critics on numerous occasions that most if not all defendants are guilty. Victor Garber (late of “Alias”) and his all-star defense team will see about that.

Cable channels, meanwhile, began unspooling some of their most promising shows as soon as they left Pasadena: BBC America is airing “Life on Mars” (10 p.m. Mondays), a detective period piece set in 1973. TLC’s “The Messengers” (10 p.m. Sundays), a search for the best new inspirational speaker, is getting amens. Bravo’s “Tabloid Wars” (9 p.m. Mondays) features hard-working, dedicated newspaper folk. What’s not to like there?

Coming very soon, the much-anticipated meditation from director Spike Lee on Hurricane Katrina, “When the Levees Broke,” Aug. 21-22 on HBO.

The critics’ tour ended on an unusually positive note from television’s most beleaguered channel, PBS. Despite renewed government pressure – a dithering FCC that can’t decide what is indecent and an administration that wants to choke off its cash supply – PBS is forging ahead under new president Paula Kerger, a plainspoken veteran of public TV. The PBS schedule won’t look much different this fall, but Kerger outlined ambitious plans to make pledge drives less painful, reverse the decline in revenue, keep “Masterpiece Theatre” going and get a new generation interested in its most essential programs.

Already, she noted, the “NewsHour” ranks among the top 100 downloads on Apple’s iTunes service.

“Jim Lehrer, iPod superstar: Who would have guessed it?” Kerger said.

(c) 2006, The Kansas City Star.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-31-06 0938EDT

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