Ever wonder how reality shows got that name?

What’s “realer”: The spectacle of a larger-than-life chef pitching fits for the camera on the Fox reality show “Hell’s Kitchen” (which returns for a new season Jan. 29)?

Or “Lost,” ABC’s eerie serial that teems with reality (all sorts of realities)?

Or Showtime’s tart new comedy “United States of Tara,” starring Toni Collette as a woman plagued by her headfull of conflicting identities, with a reality to go with each of them?

Or maybe the returning “Friday Night Lights,” the much-acclaimed drama imbedded in a small Texas town where high-school football reigns supreme? “Lights” occupies an everyday world the audience recognizes from experience, and it gives that real world back to them beautifully observed.

Of course, the reality genre continues to hold sway on TV. For example, you might have noticed that Fox’s “American Idol” is back. Airing Tuesdays and Wednesdays, “Idol” is real, real popular.

But in the next couple of weeks, viewers can enjoy four new scripted shows as well as more than a dozen returning favorites. Many are excellent and all above average. And any of them challenges the notion that real life is conveyed more vividly (and entertainingly) by camera hogs in the guise of playing themselves than by actors bringing scripted roles to life.

• Among the new series, the highest-profile is A&E’s crime drama “The Beast,” premiering Thursday at 10 p.m. EST on A&E (See .

In large part, that’s because of the tragic shadow cast across the show by the illness of its star, Patrick Swayze. When judged solely on its merits (a tall order for any Swayze admirer), “The Beast” arrives as a reasonably good show with the potential to get better.

Swayze fills the bill as Charles Barker, a tough, world-weary undercover FBI agent. Travis Fimmel plays Barker’s rookie partner who has an added on-the-job burden: the possibility that Barker is corrupt.

• “The United States of Tara” (premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. EST on Showtime) gives Toni Collette (“Little Miss Sunshine”) the four roles of a lifetime. She plays Tara, a suburban housewife afflicted with Dissociative Identity Disorder. This means Tara has a tendency to shift without warning into any of three alternate personalities (including Buck, a gun-toting roughneck).

Tara, along with a family that includes her easygoing husband (John Corbett), must learn to deal with the madness of it all – sometimes even gratefully.

“Because of YOU,” Tara’s son reassures her, “WE get to be interesting.”

• “Lie to Me” is a by-the-book crime drama that reads between the lines. Tim Roth (“The Incredible Hulk”) plays a “deception expert” who investigates cases by “reading” the facial cues of suspects he interrogates – and then sussing out which of them are lying. Also starring Kelli Williams (“The Practice”), it premieres Jan. 21 at 9 p.m. EST on Fox.

• “Trust Me” pairs Eric McCormack (“Will & Grace”) and Tom Cavanagh (“Ed”) in a lighthearted drama set in an advertising agency. This is no “Mad Men.” It’s more like mad guys – a buddy comedy complicated when one of them is promoted as the boss of the other. Can their friendship survive their difference in status? Can their careers survive the jams they get into? Also starring Monica Potter, it premieres Jan. 26 at 10 p.m. EST on TNT.

Returning series include:

• “Damages,” the splendid legal thriller starring Glenn Close, Rose Byrne and William Hurt, whose second season on FX began last week and airs Wednesdays.

• “Flashpoint,” CBS’ cop drama about an emergency tactical squad, which aired last summer and is now back on Fridays. So is USA’s “Monk” (starring Tony Shalhoub as the obsessive-compulsive detective who always cracks the case) and USA’s “Psych” (about a guy who pretends to be psychic and a pal who serves as his partner-in-crimesolving).

• “24,” whose new season is airing Mondays on Fox. It finds Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) scrambling through Washington to save the world from its latest bad day.

• “Friday Night Lights,” returning this Friday on NBC (fresh from DirecTV). As the third season begins, Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is bucking pressure from the team’s boosters for his coaching style, while his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), is taking heat from the community in her new job as high school principal.

• “Battlestar Galactica,” beginning its final season this Friday on Sci Fi with a heartbreaking discovery and at least one case of identity crisis.

• “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” the saucy Showtime comedy with the self-explanatory title, begins a second season Jan. 18. The London setting looks grand, Billie Piper looks yummy in her role as high-class escort Belle and the tales are a treat.

• “Big Love,” HBO’s drama about a middle-class husband and his three wives, returning Jan. 18. The king of his three suburban castles, Bill Henrickson continues to live a very full life, which includes a tyrannical father-in-law who is dead-set on destroying him. Meanwhile, he is getting serious about bringing a fourth wife into the family.

• HBO’s goofy “Flight of the Conchords,” back Jan. 18. New Zealanders Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement play a folk-music duo trying to find success in New York City in this comedy more easily enjoyed than described.

• “The L Word,” Showtime’s melodrama about a circle of lesbian friends and lovers, begins its final run Jan. 18 by offing Jenny, one of its main characters. As the network announced last month, this would-be writer and well-established two-timer (played by Mia Kirshner) starts the season dead in a swimming pool.

• “Lost” is back Jan. 21 at its inscrutable best with a two-hour season premiere. The Oceanic Six are taking steps to return to the island. Meanwhile, the island has disappeared into time. Huh? The overall ambiguity is summed up by a character who speculates, “We’re either in the past … or we’re in the future.” Sure.

• USA’s spy romp, “Burn Notice,” reignites Jan. 22.

• TNT’s “The Closer” returns Jan. 26 with Brenda Leigh Johnson facing marriage. But Brenda (the feisty, Southern-bred LAPD deputy police chief) isn’t terribly gung-ho about planning a wedding, nor is she game to be wearing white on the big day. Kyra Sedgwick resumes her award-winning portrayal.

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