Grey' s Anatomy by Scott Garfield/ABC
For the last few seasons, Thursday was unquestionably the busiest night of the TV week, but it now has serious competition. Monday, especially the first hour of prime-time, is a logjam nightmare of strong choices. And this Sunday is one hot mess, with ABC launching its re-energized leap-into-the-future Desperate Housewives and Brothers & Sisters while Showtime kick-starts dazzling new seasons of Dexter and Californication while HBO continues with its kicky True Blood-Entourage combo, adding the raucous sketch-com Little Britain USA this week while CBS revs up a new season of Emmy champ The Amazing Race leading into Cold Case and a transplanted The Unit while Fox brings back its durable animated lineup. Whew.

And yet Thursdays still count as the TV weeknight that it feels the entire week is building up to. It will take a few weeks for the night to take complete form; CSI and newbie remakes Life on Mars, Eleventh Hour and Kath & Kim (the latter quite possibly the worst new sitcom since, well, the last dud) won't arrive until Oct. 9, choosing not to have their momentum stalled by next Thursday's vice-presidential debate pre-emption. Emmy darling 30 Rock won't show up until Oct. 30, its slot filled for several weeks by Saturday Night Live Weekend Update specials. (A prospect that's a bit scary, considering how NOT ready for prime time the regular show has mostly been so far this season.)

It's not as if the night isn't already plenty busy this week. On CBS, the still-powerful Survivor returns with a two-hour opener, for the first time displaying its exotic wares in high definition, the premiere overlapping with a two-hour Grey's Anatomy opener on ABC. Survivor wasn't available for preview, but Grey's has plenty of moments- though not the ones trumpeted in misleading promos.

I'm glad Mer and Der (that would be Meredith and Derek "McDreamy" to the uninitiated) are in a happier place these days, but Meredith (whose neuroses I usually try to excuse) is a walking migraine this week, fretting so constantly in a stream of neurotic babbling that she's "afraid of having a happy ending" to the point that Cristina (the invaluable Sandra Oh) finally acts as the audience surrogate by exploding into a major will-you-shut-up rant. (This moment is punctuated by the sort of over-the-edge melodramatic plot twist that only Grey's Anatomy can get away with, and in this case, I'm not sure it succeeds.)

The main reasons to watch tonight's opener go beyond the suds, which feel like they've gone through one too many spin cycles: Lexi sniffing around an oblivious George, Izzy and Alex dancing around their feelings, Callie and Erica wondering how to give voice to an attraction that dare not yet speak its name. All of the regulars are upstaged by this week's stellar guest list: Bernadette Peters, Kathy Baker and Mariette Hartley as three best friends in ball gowns who suffer a variety of personal calamities in the wake of an ice-storm car crash. Peters is especially fine as she confronts a life spinning out of control. I'd make her an early contender for a guest-actor Emmy nomination. (A Bernadette aside: She also gives a wrenching performance in next month's Lifetime movie Living Proof, as a patient in a test study for a new breast-cancer drug. Wednesday night, she performed with the movie's star, Harry Connick Jr., at a post-screening party at New York's Plaza Hotel. Happy to say she's still in great voice.)

Also making a strong impression in tonight's Grey's: Kevin McKidd (of Rome and last season's Journeyman) as a take-charge Army doctor who arrives at Seattle Grace mid-crisis, having performed triage in the field. Cristina is instantly impressed: "Hot," she mutters. The Chief is also an instant fan, looking for some new blood in the wake of the teaching hospital falling to #12 in the national rankings.

When the Chief lectures the staff, "Overnight we got old, entrenched and sloppy. We've been resting on our laurels," you can't help wonder if this isn't an inside joke, commenting on the mixed reception to last year's storylines and the up-and-down ratings. Whatever the case, it's an entertaining if at times aggravating start to a new season.

Speaking of comebacks, some good news on the My Name Is Earl front. After last year's misbegotten efforts to move beyond the show's winning formula- Earl in jail (excruciating), then Earl in a coma (unbearable), then Earl married to Alyssa Milano, by which time I had long since bailed- Earl is now happily announcing the fact that it's "back to the list," where a good time can be had by all. The fourth season opens with back-to-back episodes (why?) that are a welcome return to form, especially the first of the two, featuring Seth Green in an "AWE-some" (as his character would say) guest role as a former Make-a-Wish kid who younger-Earl had deprived of his dream. When Earl goes to make amends to the boy's parents, he discovers little Buddy didn't die after all. And Buddy's new wish, to make an awesome spy movie, brings about antics that are both silly and sweet (while revealing some unexpected talents in Earl's brother Randy).

The second episode hits closer to home as Earl tries to right wrongs perpetrated on a childhood neighbor (the very funny David Paymer) and unearths some unpleasant family secrets involving his mom and dad (Beau Bridges, a riot, and Nancy Lenehan, who's also the prospective mother-in-law on CBS's new Worst Week).

It's a pleasure to see Earl once again back on its game, though after last year's unfortunate detour, the novelty is undeniably gone, and it's hard to recommend this over the more colorful charms of ABC's Ugly Betty, which returns for a third season now being filmed in New York, as it should have been all along. "Welcome to our new home," boss Daniel tells Betty as she returns from a rejuvenating vacation. (The in-joke reference is to real, not faux, Manhattan, but the line also refers to Daniel's new gig at a Maxim-like rag for brain-dead stoner horndogs.) Meanwhile, Wilhelmina is still an evil ice queen (the Mode offices are freezing), plotting against all of the Meades, and Betty's idealistic plan to start a life independent of her family hits some immediate humiliating snags. Lindsay Lohan turns up in a fun recurring guest role as Betty's high-school nemesis, currently making life miserable for papa Ignacio at the fast-food joint (Flushing Burgers!) she manages. The much-ballyhooed food fight doesn't really live up to expectations, but most of the rest of Ugly Betty is pretty darn enjoyable.

Factor in The Office (supersized, so what else is new) and the beginning of the end of ER (neither available for preview), and Smallville and Supernatural still holding down their cult/fantasy niche on the CW, and you've got a pretty full menu. Many of us are likely to be playing back Thursday shows until it's time to dig in to Sunday. Welcome to the new season.