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TONED-DOWN 'PUBLIC MORALS' UPDATES 'BARNEY MILLER' WITHOUT ANY LAUGHS

To paraphrase Bob Dole, why the public outrage from critics? Where are the laughs? Whom is Steven Bochco kidding?

Those are the most likely reactions to the lame premiere of "Public Morals" (9:30 tonight, Channel 4).

This is the show co-created by Jay Tarses ("Buffalo Bill," "Slap Maxwell") and Bochco thatsparked critical protests this summer because of its risque dialogue about a female's private parts.

Bochco's wife, actress Barbara Bosson ("Murder One"), admitted that she didn't like some of the dialogue. And Tarses' daughter, ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses, tactfully said she didn't consider the show to be her dad's brightest moment. (ABC passed on the idea before Bochco took it to CBS as part of his new deal there.)

If the outrage is missing tonight, it's because CBS apparently has put the original pilot in mothballs, presumably to air on some cable channel a decade from now during a marathon of lost pilots.

There isn't a hint of the summer controversy in tonight's premiere. Unless you are appalled by the expressions "kiss a--" and "giant s--- head." Considering the casual use of expletives in society, those words seem rather tame even if they can't be spelled out in a family newspaper.

Unfortunately, there isn't a hint of a laugh in tonight's show, either.

You'll find more humor in "NYPD Blue" or Bochco's older dramas -- "Hill Street Blues" or "L.A. Law."

Essentially, "Morals" is an attempt to update "Barney Miller."

The most offensive part of the original "Morals" issue remains -- it isn't funny.

In tonight's routinely developed premiere, we're introduced to the Public Morals Squad of the NYPD, which is led by an insecure guy who doesn't command the respect of a Capt. Furillo or a Lt. Fancy.

Lt. Neil Fogarty (Peter Gerety) is a symbol of the Peter Principle, a good-natured, insecure buffoon who is promoted to a job that he doesn't want and isn't suited for. Think of Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) of "NYPD Blue" with an IQ reduction -- yeah, if that's possible -- and a Bobcat Goldthwait accent. His staff includes two sexy, tough women, Sgt. Vandergroodt (Jane Marie Rupp) and Detective O'Boyle (Julianne Christie); a slovenly divorced Detective Schuler (Donal Logue); a good cop whose elevator doesn't go to the top floor, Detective Biondi (Lawrence Romano); a strait-laced African-American, Officer Ruggs (Joseph Latimore); a handsome ladies' man, Mickey Crawford (Justin Louis), and a pleasant public administrative assistant, John Irvin (Bill Brochtrup, who plays the same part on "NYPD Blue").

Tonight, the vice squad closes down a bar serving smart-aleck, underage kids. Next week, they arrest O'Boyle's boyfriend for soliciting a prostitute. CBS sent along a third episode, but I took a pass because I can't see this show lasting more than two weeks.

The humor is guilty of being drawn too often from ethnic and sexual stereotypes. The low point comes early when Lt. Fogarty foolishly repeats the words of his Asian predecessor without realizing he is making fun of a guy who can't say his L's properly.

Not to say that there isn't anything amusing about "Public Morals." The show's attempt next week to make viewers sympathize with its characters indeed becomes amusing. It has all the subtlety and credibility of a political advertisement on television in late October.

In a way, the lame attempt at sympathy is more insulting to the audience than the gross language in the original pilot.

Speaking of insults, Bochco used the initial criticism of "Public Morals" to blast television critics. In a magazine interview, he said of critics -- many of whom have praised and overpraised his dramas -- "the overwhelming majority of those folks are dopes."

One suspects that Bochco made the remark more flippantly than the writer documented.

But that remark makes "Public Morals" a referendum on Bochco's work and opinions. Viewers will ultimately decide who's the dope if they ever get to see the original episode.

CBS has stuck the show in the week's most impossible time slot, opposite "The Drew Carey Show," "Men Behaving Badly," "The Jamie Foxx Show" and "Party of Five" in our market. It also plays opposite "Star Trek: Voyager" nationally.

The first two episodes dealing with this squad of oddball characters are so unfunny that it wouldn't be surprising if the second "Morals" even finished behind "Foxx," which airs on the much smaller WB Network. Unless there is quick improvement in the writing, my guess is that "Morals" probably will need a guest appearance by Hugh Grant to last through the entire November sweeps.

Rating: 1 1/2 stars out of 5.

Channel 7 is expected to announce later this week that it has hired former Buffalo Sabres play-by-play man John Gurtler to become its weekend sports anchor. Gurtler essentially would be replacing Eric Goodman, who is leaving to join the new cable sports channel CNN/SI.

Inquiring minds want to know: Where are the religious programs that the WB Network has supplanted on Channel 49?

Gus Palmisano of Adelphia International confirmed that the 100,000 subscribers in its rebuild area and the 40,000 subscribers in the Lancaster-Lockport system will be getting the new home of the religious broadcaster, Channel 26 in Jamestown, on Jan. 2.

Because it's going on only in the rebuild area, no channel will have to be dropped. The 50,000 subscribers at Adelphia-Niagara won't be as fortunate.

According to Adelphia-Niagara General Manager Vince Laurendi, it has to carry Channel 26 60 days after it goes on the air. As a result, it will have to drop either a Canadian channel (perhaps CHCH-TV in Hamilton) or WTBS from its basic lineup.

Before anyone calls to complain about cable lineup changes, remember that local cable systems have to find space for the religious channel.