Gail Simmons, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio

They say "Everything's Bigger in Texas," which happens to be the episode title for the premiere of Bravo's Texas-set ninth season of Top Chef (10/9c). And it also may explain why a ginormous platoon of 29 chef-testants descends on the historic Alamo for the first round of competition, and why the process of narrowing the field to a Top 16 can't even be contained within the first pulse-pounding episode.

"They're raising the level of intensity pretty fast," says one of the chefs, and what follows bears that out. There's no room for error and no slack allowed — one person is told to pack their knives before the first dish is even finished — as the 29 are split into three groups, each getting a separate "Qualifying Challenge" as they desperately try to impress the judges, who instantly decide which chefs get a coat, which ones don't make the grade and which are "on the bubble" and will get a second chance to join the cast. Participating alongside the usual judges this season: Emeril Lagasse and the always entertaining Top Chef Masters veteran Hugh Acheson.

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If the new season of Top Chef can keep up this pace as it moves the challenges from San Antonio to Dallas and Austin, this could be my favorite reality-competition block of the week, paired with the provocative Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (9/8c), which tonight welcomes executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker as a guest judge.

But these are hardly the only game in town. America gets to start voting tonight for their favorites on Fox's The X Factor (8/7c), with a two-hour live performance show, and let's hope the judges can start focusing on the singers more than on dissing each other. The results (in which, we're told, the judges will select one of the bottom two acts to go home after a sing-off) airs Thursday.

And it's time for the merge on CBS' Survivor: South Pacific (8/7c), at which time we'll see if Ozzy's ridiculously reckless strategy from last week pays off, as he faces the indomitable Christine in a Redemption Island challenge after contriving to have himself voted out of his tribe, even giving up his immunity idol in the bargain. He's convinced that he'll beat Christine, and when he rejoins the game, he'll even the numbers between the former competing tribes. Hubris? Folly? At least it gives us more time to enjoy the antics of Cochran, the quintessential Survivor nerd who's one of the most purely enjoyable players in years.

Look who's raising the game on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (10/9c): the great Andre Braugher, in fine form as Bayard Ellis, a formidable defense attorney/civil liberties crusader who takes on an African-American rape defendant pro bono, crossing swords with the equally dedicated Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay). "We got the right man," Olivia challenges him. "Not the right way," he shoots back. Both are right, and by the end, there's a mutual agreement that "win or lose, it comes with a cost." There's a wonderful moment where Braugher encounters his former Homicide: Life on the Street co-star Richard Belzer, still playing Det. Munch after all these years — read Braugher's thoughts on his appearance here. It's also a treat to see Linus Roache back in action as Bureau Chief Mike Cutter, called in to face the mighty Ellis. (It's a reminder of how much was lost when NBC scuttled the Law & Order mothership.) The episode is notable as well for a strong guest performance from Medium's Sofia Vassilieva as the victim-of-the-week, a tougher-than-she-looks music student who begins to wonder if taking the case to court is worth it.

Halloween is over, but FX's American Horror Story (10/9c) — just renewed to no one's surprise for a second season — keeps on going. And going crazier by the minute, which is not necessarily a compliment. The scariest thing about this episode, which concludes the Halloween-night two-parter, is the hysterically pitched acting (especially by Dylan McDermott, who has his hands full dealing with a peeved wife and the psychotic ghost of his mistress) and the laughably lurid incoherent plotting. Look close and you'll see Ashley Rickards from MTV's Awkward (now there's a great show) as one of the mean teens taunting the wacko Tate, about whom we learn more — none of it terribly surprising, if you've been paying attention.

So what else is on? ... Expand your mind and horizons with PBS' The Fabric of the Cosmos, a four-part Nova mini-series (9/8c, check local schedules) hosted by physicist Brian Greene, who kicks things off by asking "What Is Space?" His answer involves something called "dark energy," which reinforces his theory that space is anything but an empty void. ... PBS comes back to earth with a profile of the late Apple visionary in the hour-long special Steve Jobs: One Last Thing (10/9c, check local schedules). ... Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes her first appearance on CBS' Late Show With David Letterman (11:35/10:35c), plugging her new memoir. ... Guest-star gene pool: Blythe Danner and Richard Schiff play Christina Applegate's parents, visiting their new granddaughter on NBC's Up All Night (8/7c).

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