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'PLAYERS,' ONE MORE TRIUMPH OF MONEY OVER MESSAGE?

Class was in session. My daughter was giving me one of her periodic, much-needed tutorials on rap and hip-hop a few years ago.

It's like this with the Ices, she said. Vanilla Ice is just a big, dumb, good-looking white guy. He's the Fabian of rap. Don't worry about him. He's history. He won't be on the final exam.

Ice Cube, she said, is a big deal, but only because he sells records. He's a contemptible jerk. (The way she put it was a bit spicier and more memorable, but I have taken the liberty of translating freely for these purposes.)

Ice-T is the one, Dad. He's the philosopher of rap, the thinker. Here, read this interview. He's a social critic and an important voice in rap, one of the most important. He's major, Dad, trust me.

And I did, just as she trusted me when she was little and I told her that Bach and Sonny Rollins were major. She's still not wrong, either, just because Ice-T -- the prime mover of gangsta rap -- is now on NBC's "Players" every Friday night (8 p.m. Channel 2). He's also in book and record stores with "The Ice Opinion," the book and disc version of what may be his true metier, which is tough, uncompromising, funny and rather brilliant street talk.

That Ice-T is now making his living on NBC Friday nights in a TV show invented, partially, by Shaun Cassidy says less about his fallibility and corruptibility than it says about the truly invincible genius of late capitalism, which can absorb just about everything -- everything -- for its own purposes. (With enough conglomerate money, Sonny Rollins, after all, was persuaded to do an entirely incidental saxophone obbligato to the Rolling Stones' "Waiting on a Friend." At any given moment, conglomerate-backed enterprises like Rolling Stones Inc., no doubt, have enough money to buy all sorts of scoffers who are now hunkered down in the small and entirely untested cubicles of their integrity.)

Besides, what's a poor gangsta rapper to do? You can't rage against white exclusion and then sit on your thumbs when a network comes calling with suitcases full of money and the weekly promise of getting one's message out in prime time (or, as Deion Sanders and ESPN's Chris Berman put it, "prahm tahm").

So there is Ice-T in "Players," a 1997 network throwaway composed of equal parts "The Mod Squad" and "The A-Team."

Ice-T, Costas Mandylor and Charlie O'Bannon play a trio of jailbirds conscripted right out of the joint by the FBI to infiltrate bad guys and do piecework undercover cop operations for the bureau. It's how they're to maintain their parole.

Ice-T looks like he's no stranger these days to Heinekens and baby back ribs. (Then again, it's not an uncommon condition.) That's why they have professional Friday-night hunk Mandylor around. He plays what is commonly known as a "ladies' man" in publicity-ese. Mandylor, who looks like a combination of Sylvester Stallone and Howdy Doody, used to play the deputy sheriff and love-and-work partner of Lauren Holly on "Picket Fences."

The show, in other words, seems to have been carefully weighted to let Ice-T come out on top every week, as the voice of Higher Ethical Wisdom, while Mandylor is off following his hormones and O'Bannon is climbing into and out of some scam or other.

On "The Mod Squad," you remember, Linc always had it all over Pete and Julie in the Higher Wisdom department.

The FBI controller of all these paroled hooligans is played by Christine Kowalski in a spasm of female tokenism as obvious as giving Walker, Texas Ranger, a female boss.

Don't look now but, as the networks continue to lose audience shares drop by drop to cable TV, the ancient TV archetypes keep reasserting themselves.

In other words, '50s, '60s and '70s TV shows aren't dead, they just dress differently these days. "Total Security" is nothing but slicked-up "77 Sunset Strip"; "Players" is just "The Mod Squad" with "A-Team" wisecracks instead of syrupy, '70s sensitivity; "The Practice" is just "The Young Lawyers" and "The Storefront Lawyers" with Bochco-style freak jokes (though the David E. Kelley occupational misgivings do seem somewhat new -- or at least newish).

"Jenny" is just "The Lucy Show" with silicone. "Law and Order" is just the vest-pocket, nicely tabloided version of "Arrest and Trial."

Some smart TV writer/producer or other is going to figure out the proper bonding agents and wardrobe changes that will get new versions of "Name of the Game," "Have Gun Will Travel," "Wanted: Dead or Alive" and "Maverick" back on the air.

All it requires is a sufficient quantity of what New York Daily News TV critic David Bianculi has called "teleliteracy." Those without it look at this stuff, see stray rappers and Playboy Playmates and assume something new is happening.

In the words of Alica Silverstone in (the original) "Clueless," "as if."

Meanwhile, back at the old and the worthy and the chronically Emmyless, the new "Homicide" followed "Players' " debut with some interesting new cast members and one plot that was a first cousin to the opening episode of "Brooklyn South" and the virtual twin of one that was on last season's chronically underrated (and now gone) "High Incident."

In the unlikely event that "Players" isn't a hit and the suits at NBC decide to ashcan a show as fine as "Homicide" -- a show that is, by many lights, the best series on television -- I have a thought.

Why not drop Ice-T in a weekly series about an independent California rapper who tries to make peace in the violent, escalating war between coastal rappers and their New York City counterparts?

How about lots of "Law and Order"-style references to the real slayings of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.? And cameos by L.L. Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, Puffy Combs, Heavy D, Tone-Loc, Salt-N-Pepa, Mary J. Blige, A Tribe Called Quest, Shabba Ranks and Queen Latifah?

And all produced, and sometimes written, by Tom Fontana with some of the cathartic savagery that came through in every other line of HBO's "Oz"?

Some generational tutorials might be necessary in many American homes, but they're relatively painless. Honest.

Trust me.