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Sunday, September 20, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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TV Knows Best -- Seattle TV Critic Kay Mcfadden Tells You What To Waste Your Time On

Seattle Times Television Critic

Face it. We've never needed a new television season more.

For all the crimes TV commits in the name of entertainment, few match recent real-life events on the scale of numbing cliche and zero originality. Think sitcoms are sex-obsessed and banal? Try the independent counsel's report.

And the worst one-hour drama never contained the pseudo-profundities now rolling from the lips of assorted Washington stereotypes.

Not that other news stories offered much relief. If it wasn't Kink-o the president, it was Keiko the whale - who, incidentally, both owe a huge debt to show business for their careers.

That's entertainment for you. It just keeps giving and giving.

What TV will give us this fall is, for the most part, personal instead of topical. Thanks to the popular "Everybody Loves Raymond," office humor and big-city locales are ceding ground to relationship humor and suburbia. The results vary from "The King of Queens" to "Living in Captivity," reflecting a growing mosaic out where the grass is mowed.

Crime shows are in scant evidence. Sensing an oversupply of lawyers and cops, the networks instead offer a tiny clutch of self-employed, highly stylized justice-seekers. These incude the suave "Buddy Faro" and the sinister "Vengeance Unlimited."

Sometimes, a cultural change springs from unknown wells. Whether due to the enduring success of "Angela's Ashes" and "Lord of the Dance" or simply an inevitability of demographics, several 1998-99 shows have Irish-American themes or backdrops: "Trinity," "Costello, "To Have and To Hold" and "Legacy."

With the proliferation of newsmagazines, the hourlong drama is an endangered species. ABC's provocative pair, "Fantasy Island" and "Cupid," are stuck on Saturdays. Fortunately, baby networks have more space and autumn's single most promising newcomer, The WB's "Felicity," airs on viewer-friendly Tuesdays.

Clearly, no one trend dominates the 1998-99 television schedule. This is a good thing. Getting clobbered by cable finally has forced the networks to take more chances, not just the sexually diverse "Will & Grace" kind, but the kind that gambles on imagination and viewer intelligence.

A word about the star system. Based on the McFadden curve, anything with two stars or less is a waste of time unless you enjoy train wrecks. Two-and-a-half stars is worth checking out if you like the concept. There's also a guide to age suitability, though it's axiomatic on TV that Father - and Mother - know best.

THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT `RAYMOND'

Guess what? It's clinically proven: You can live outside a city, maybe even have kids and still be pretty sharp. Behold the updated domestic comedy:

XXX "That '70s Show" (Fox). Set in 1976, this coming-of-age sitcom about Wisconsin teenagers has the feel-good quality of "Happy Days" combined with the pithiness of "King of the Hill." Well-acted, mostly well-written, and doesn't lean too much on pop-culture devices or flinch from some of the stuff adolescents really did back then. Suitable for ages 12 and up. Already debuted; airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m.

XX 1/2 "The King of Queens" (CBS). "Raymond" spinoff star Kevin James is a happily married working-class lunk whose guy world alters when abrasive father-in-law Jerry Stiller moves in. A nuanced update on "The Honeymooners," helped by the chemistry between James and wife Leah Remini. Still, too much Stiller can swamp your show. Ages 8 and up. Debuts Monday at 8:30.

XX 1/2 "Living in Captivity" (Fox). Sometimes rude and clumsy, this sitcom about three couples (one black, two white) living in a gated community nevertheless has a sharp, home-truthin' edge about the paranoid side of paradise. Needs to make better use of the entire talented cast and avoid distracting vulgarities. Ages 16 and up. Already debuted; airs Fridays at 8 p.m.

XX 1/2 "Guys Like Us" (UPN). Chris Hardwick and Bumper Robinson are roommates who unexpectedly inherit Robinson's younger brother, 6-year-old newcomer Maestro Harrell. Hardick and Harrell are funny; Robinson's the straight man and the triangle works. For better or worse, it's very much a younger version of cross-network rival "Cosby." Ages 6 and up. Debuts Oct. 5 at 8 p.m.

XX "Two of a Kind" (ABC). To bolster its "TGIF" lineup, ABC has got Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in the time-honored "Full House" slot; question is, do we really want cutesy-poo redux? The boring pilot about a single dad raising two daughters relies heavily on the co-stars' appeal and offers not one fresh moment. Ages 6 and up. Debuts Friday at 8 p.m.

XX "DiResta" (UPN). NYC transit cop turned comedian John DiResta has pulled a slot opposite "The King of Queens" - and suffers by comparison. Turning one's real life into sitcom fodder is a trend we hope is almost over, at least among the stand-up set. Ages 6 and up. Debuts Oct. 5 at 8:30 p.m.

X 1/2 "The Hughleys" (ABC). It resembles "Living in Captivity." But this half-hour take on the 'burbs is much more focused on the experiences of a black family new to a snooty white environment. Unfortunately, star and creator D.L. Hughley uses ethnic stereotyping to position characters in a pilot that presages a series of pat "lessons." Ages 8 and up. Debuts Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.

X "Brother's Keeper" (ABC). Danger, danger: ABC's "TGIF" lineup is in trouble, and this bankrupt sitcom has been paired with "Two of a Kind" to help save it. Single dad William Ragsdale cares for his scampish football star brother Sean O'Bryan and for a toothy, generic little boy, Justin Cooper. Guess who provides the hijinks while Dad frowns on? Ages 8 and up. Debuts Friday at 9:30 p.m.

0 stars "Holding The Baby" (Fox). Fox executives must've sampled the weed featured in episode one of "That '70s Show" when they OKed this dog. Doo-doo, poo-poo - and that's just the adults. A good argument for "When Animals Attack: The Series." Stay away. Suitable for no one. Already debuted; airs Sundays at 7:30 p.m.

0 stars "Costello" (Fox). Begorra, Paddy, an Irish-American minstrel show. Jokes about drinking, government handouts and sexual repression, laden with naughty words. Sue Murphy plays Sue Costello, part of a dysfunctional family living in South Boston. Suitable for no one. Already debuted; airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m.

EAT, DRINK, MAN, WOMAN, MAN

The fundamental things apply . . . sort of. Love has many sides in the 1990s, and sorting it out provides fodder for this fall's strongest category of shows:

XXXX "Felicity" (The WB). Apparently all it took was one fab show - "Dawson's Creek" - to spread word that The WB's the place for deft, thoughtful drama. Amazingly, "Felicity" is even better. Keri Russell plays the exquisite, sensitive 18-year-old who goes off to college on a romantic whim and stays to learn about herself; she gets terrific support from the cast and script. Ages 12 and up. Debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m. (opposite not much).

XXX 1/2 "Will & Grace" (NBC). No more worries that this will be another wrist-flapping, hetero-hysterical depiction of gay men. Eric McCormack and Debra Messing work beautifully together as Nick and Nora without the sex - the gay attorney and straight interior designer who become roommates. Crackerjack writing and a very funny supporting cast. One snag: Will won't be, uh, active anytime soon. Ages 12 and up. Debuts tomorrow at 9:30 p.m.

XXX 1/2 "Cupid" (ABC). Wacky but swell: Jeremy Piven (Spence on "Ellen") brings his attractive abrasiveness to the role of mythic matchmaker Cupid, here on earth to unite 100 couples. That, or he's a nut. Paula Marshall plays his therapist; her insistence on logical compatibility vs. his chemistry-driven philosophy make sparks fly - for them and others. Ages 16 and up. Debuts Saturday at 10 p.m.

XXX "Hyperion Bay" (The WB). Mark-Paul Gosselaar, mostly grown up, is the prodigal success who returns home to find his family struggling, his ex-jock brother divorcing and his hometown economically on its knees. Being a computer whiz, he's actually kind of enjoying all this. Good writing, albeit mopey and slack at times. Also up against "Ally McBeal." Ages 12 and up. Debuts tomorrow at 9 p.m.

XX 1/2 "To Have and To Hold" (CBS). You may need to be Irish American and female to like this Boston romance between a public defender and a cop. Moira Kelley and Jason Beghe jell as married lovers; the plot veers between moments maudlin and wry. Sample: "There is nothing like being with a woman you want to strangle one minute and ravish the next, son." Ages 12 and up. Debuts Sept. 30 at 9 p.m.

XX "Sports Night" (ABC). This looked to be a satirical spoof of that show on ABC's sister cable channel, ESPN. But after establishing Peter Krause and Josh Charles as two sharp if unlikeable creatures replete with collapsing personal lives, the pilot segues into a corny epiphany about recapturing faith in one's calling . . . sports anchor? Ages 12 and up. Debuts Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.

X "The Secret Lives of Men" (ABC). After viewing this pilot, one has to ask: Is it really that dull? Play golf, have a beer, be doomed to trite observations that pass for moments of insight - and not even know how pathetic you are, which at least "Drew Carey" does? Ages 6 and up (Hey, they'll fall asleep). Debuts Sept. 30 at 9:30 p.m.

FIGMENTS OF THE IMAGINATION

Sometimes, good vs. evil takes place in another galaxy. Sometimes, the struggle is much closer to home. And that's the D and the A and the M and N of it, as the creators of Fox's now-defunct "Hollyweird" project discovered:

XXX 1/2 "Fantasy Island" (ABC). Be careful what you ask for; this update of the '70s hit is nothing like its predecessor. With the charming and scary Malcolm McDowell as Mr. Roarke, "Fantasy Island" has become a place that delivers not what you want, but what you need. Great camera work and sets, a witty script and sly subplotting make this a perfect allegorical adventure for the age of no limits. Ages 12 and up. Debuts Saturday at 9 p.m.

XX 1/2 "Brimstone" (Fox). Police officer Peter Horton killed the man who raped his wife. When Horton dies in the line of duty, he goes to the Bad Place. Is there redemption? Yes - if he can round up 113 escaped souls and put them back on the eternal hot seat. It's a hell of a proposition, but tailor-made for Goth potatoes. Shades of "Millennium." Ages 12 and up. Debut to be announced.

XX "Charmed" (The WB). Three twentysomething San Francisco sisters learn they're good witches, but mediocre actresses. Stars Shannon Doherty (yeah, yeah), Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs. The show needs funny lessons from "Buffy"; still, it could click with younger females if it preceded "Dawson's Creek" instead of coming afterward. Ages 10 and up. Debuts Oct. 7 at 9 p.m.

X "Seven Days" (UPN). That's how long it took to get this tired concept rolling. The president has been assassinated in a White House attack and a team led by Jonathan LaPaglia must go back in time to change history. (Seven days is the maximum reach of the way-back gizmo.) This is just what "Star Trek" preached against, with good reason. Ages 8 and up. Debuts Oct. 7 at 8 p.m.

X "Mercy Point" (UPN). Home docs in outer space. A team of emergency physicians led by Joe Morton works at a space station. The entire genre of sci-fi is on the wane and this ain't the show to revive it, though the opening scene of alien projectile vomiting is eye-catching and the abysmal dialogue ("This is not some low-orbit HMO!") could be considered campy. Ages 8 and up. Debuts Oct. 6 at 9 p.m.

THE FAMILIES TOLSTOY FORGOT

They only exist on TV: brawling, sprawling, handsome and (except for an occasional bad marriage) perenially happy together. It helps if you've got a ranch to spread out on.

XX 1/2 "Legacy" (UPN). Will the period drama make a comeback? A family of well-off Kentuckians lives it up in the post-Civil War era. That makes for great visuals (horse racing, swaggering swains and high-tempered gals); what gives this soapy saga a twist is the interracial romance. Ages 8 and up. Debuts Oct. 9 at 8 p.m.

XX "Trinity" (NBC). John Wells also created "ER," but he needs to lighten up this drama about an Irish-American family set in New York's (rapidly vanishing) Hell's Kitchen. The pilot tries to rope in all the characters at once, which makes for confusion. Geez, John, it's not all dark saloons and confession boxes! Ages 12 and up. Debuts Oct. 16 at 9 p.m.

X "Wind on Water" (NBC). Despite 'copter-surfing dudes, Bo Derek as a widowed ranch mom and some campy lines, this Hawaii-set soap devolves into mind-numbing travelog. It's the perfect fantasy for a TV executive: lush foliage and practically no native Hawaiians in sight. Ages 10 and up. Debuts Oct. 17 at 8 p.m.

THREE MARTINIS AND SOME POSTERIOR-WHIP TO GO

Once, they vanquished crime with a gun in one hand and a blonde in the other. Now, they're fighting for screen space. Here are this season's justice-seekers:

XXX 1/2 "Buddy Faro" (CBS). The suave detective's been threatening a comeback; he may be Dennis Farina, who plays retro-debonair Buddy Faro. When Faro's tracked down by Gen-X computer dick Frank Whaley, the chemistry clicks and the fun is on. Deadpan dialogue, a swingin' soundtrack and terrific camera work. L.A. hasn't looked this great since Chandler. Ages 10 and up. Debuts Friday at 9 p.m.

XX 1/2 "Martial Law" (CBS). Sammo Hung is Hong Kong's latest export:a 230-pound action figure full of fight and astounding grace. He's also got sly charm; the script, establishing his arrival in L.A., is humorous if predictable. This could be a cult hit or completely sail over the heads of the "Walker, Texas Ranger" crowd. Ages 10 and up. Debuts Saturday at 9 p.m.

XX "Vengeance Unlimited" (ABC). Charles Bronson meets "The Millionaire." Michael Madsen's brooding persona is wasted as the dislikable Mr. Chapel, a rich guy who finds people who've been wronged and then devises methods - some quite sadistic - to make the evildoers own up. Ages 12 and up. Debuts Thursday at 9 p.m.

SIX SHOWS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR

These were supposed to be star vehicles. The actors showed up, but we're still waiting for the scripts. The humanity, the waste!

XX "Conrad Bloom" (NBC). It's "Caroline in Pants." Mark Feuerstein is a copywriter besieged by friends and family, who take neuroticism to new heights. Linda Lavin as his mom steals what little show there is; Steve Landesberg shouldn't quit his commercials just yet. Ages 10 and up. Debuts tomorrow at 8:30 p.m.

XX "The Brian Benben Show" (CBS). Don't people in the entertainment division of a network ever visit their neighbors in news? The former "Dream On" star is his usual smart, self-deprecating self, but the jokes about ambitious rivalries among anchors creaked when "Murphy Brown" did them a decade ago. Ages 12 and up. Debuts tomorrow at 9:30 p.m.

XX "L.A. Doctors" (CBS). Poor Ken Olin. Two seasons ago, he was in the critically acclaimed, ratings-deficient "EZ Streets"; now he's caught in the already crested wave of medical dramas. This one's about doctors establishing their own practice in Beverly Hills and is so badly written, you'd need a press kit to know they're fighting the evils of managed care. Snore. Ages 12 and up. Debuts tomorrow at 10 p.m.

XX "Encore! Encore!" A k a "La Cage Aw-ful." This lame sitcom features Nathan Lane as an ex-opera diva and wild womanizer (yeah, right) forcibly retired to his family's California winery. The terrible dialogue can't be rescued by Lane, who's a lot to take when he's in every single scene. Ages 10 and up. Debuts Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.

XX "Maggie Winters" (CBS). Faith Ford doesn't get much to do in this dull little concept about a small-town girl who comes back to live with mom Shirley Knight after a divorce. It should have been a chance for Ford to display range; the slack pilot, however, establishes life will be smooth sailing with some insipid former classmates from high school. Ages 10 and up. Debuts Sept. 30 at 8:30 p.m.

XX "Jesse" (NBC). Christina Applegate proves to have over-the-top appeal as a single mom dreaming of better things. Who would have guessed it after 10 years as Kelly Bundy? Maddeningly, she's saddled with a pilot that's contrived (all her relatives are named John; one doesn't talk) and substitutes one-liners for dialogue. But hey, she's in the sweet spot between "Friends" and "Frasier." Ages 12 and up. Debuts Thursday at 8:30 p.m.

VISUAL NON SEQUITURS

The entire TV world can't be neatly categorized. Like our friend the platypus, these shows are all webbed feet and fur, defying us to imagine their origins:

0 stars "The Army Show" (The WB). Who thought a service comedy would appeal to the young, hip audience of WB fans that don't even know what an MRE is? Despite wanting to be "Sgt. Bilko," the show lacks the key ingredient: Phil Silvers. No wonder the real U.S. Army declined to get involved. Ages 12 and up. Already debuted; airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m.

0 stars "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" (UPN). Could the network that gave us "Hitz" and "Head Over Heels" last year go lower on the bad taste scale? Yes! Chi McBride plays a White House butler in this Civil War comedy featuring an oversexed Abraham Lincoln, shrewish wife Mary and boob-jiggling belles. Like we already said: If we wanted all that, we'd just watch the news. No kids. Debuts Oct. 9 at 8:30 p.m.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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