What’s Reese Witherspoon doing on ”Friends” Thursday night? Other than playing Rachel’s spoiled sister who makes a play for Ross (she also appears in next week’s episode), she’s kicking off February sweeps, the ratings period when shows parade out their highest-profile guest stars to stop channel surfers mid-switch. The part of Jennifer Aniston’s sis wasn’t necessarily written for a star, but when Witherspoon said she was interested — ta da! — instant sweeps stunt! ”We were obviously big fans of her,” says ”Friends” cocreator and executive producer David Crane. ”Anybody who saw her in ‘Election’ would just say, ‘Oh my God, yes, get her!”’ Plus, the jealousy this familial flirtation with Ross arouses in Rachel rekindles ”Friends” fans’ undying hope that the couple will reunite, although the creators aren’t giving anything away. Viewers’ interest in those two ”is obsessive,” says Crane’s partner, Marta Kauffman. ”I have to say, my rabbi has on occasion asked me about it.”
If you’re still hungry for sweeps stunts after ”Friends,” here’s a list of some of the noteworthy stars, specials, and story lines in the coming week.
”ER” (10 p.m., NBC) The medical-student character played by ”NewsRadio”’s Maura Tierney (who previously guested during the Julianna-Margulies-gives-birth episode) becomes a regular. She’ll find that even the hectic pace of the ER is less stressful than being around Andy Dick.
”The 49th Miss USA Pageant” (9 p.m., CBS) Carson Daly hosts the festivities in a rare Britney-less public appearance.
”The Pretender”/”The Profiler” crossover episodes (8 p.m., NBC) The two Saturday-night crime stoppers visit each other’s shows to solve the murder of a Secret Service agent. A wake-up call to all those who didn’t realize they were two different shows to begin with.
”King of the Hill” (7:30 p.m., Fox) Can’t get enough Witherspoon? Reese pops up again as the voice of a woman having an affair with Hank’s boss.
”The X-Files” (9 p.m., Fox) The first of a two-parter in which Mulder learns more information about his sister’s long-ago abduction.
”Mary and Rhoda” (8 p.m., ABC) The long-awaited TV-movie reunion of Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper. But don’t get your hopes up for a Georgette cameo.
”Dharma and Greg” (9 p.m., ABC) Where Bob Dylan left off, Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang take over as musical guest stars. Does Jenna Elfman control voting for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
”Star Trek Voyager” (9 p.m., UPN) The network that headlocks saved knows where its bread is buttered: WWF’s the Rock guests as a Pendari warrior who battles it out with Seven of Nine.
”ER” (10 p.m., NBC) SPOILER ALERT: In with one med student, out with another: Kellie Martin’s character will reportedly be fatally stabbed tonight, but she’ll take a week to die. Tune in on Feb. 17 for the final goodbye.