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DHARMA'S DALLIANCE SMELLS LIKE A SWEEPS RATINGS STUNT

Tonight and next week, Dharma (Jenna Elfman) visits Temptation Island on "Dharma & Greg" (9 p.m., Channel 7). On Wednesday, it looks like Lily (Sela Ward) might go near there, too, on an episode of "Once and Again."

I'm pretty sure the two shows will handle things very differently, though the dishonest promos for "Dharma & Greg" suggest otherwise.

If you've missed the promos, Greg (Thomas Gibson) is being shown in the kind of black-and-white silhouettes that are regularly used in "Once and Again" when characters discuss their feelings.

Of course, these temptations generally occur when people get bored. Writers and performers, that is.

Dharma is essentially going to the same island that Jamie (Helen Hunt) visited a few years ago on "Mad About You" when she was tempted by a co-worker.

The story lines of the two sitcoms have many similarities -- a kiss with double meaning, followed by some guilt and a resolution that assures the series can continue.

Dharma's dalliance, however, may be more understandable than Jamie's. After all, she has always been a flake, and that's one of her more enduring qualities.

Her thoughts and actions are unorthodox. Remember, she and Greg married on the day they met. It is certainly in keeping with her liberal-minded, innocent attitude to befriend a handsome teacher, Charlie (Kevin Sorbo), without thinking that she is jeopardizing anything or doing anything wrong by spending so much time "studying" with him.

But unlike "Mad About You," "Dharma & Greg" isn't grounded in reality, and tossing in a serious subject like this one smacks of a sweeps contrivance. There are few -- if any -- people like Dharma in the real world, millions of people like Jamie.

In the first of a two-part episode tonight, Dharma signs up for a college course taught by Charlie, who takes great interest in the unusual thought processes of his new student. Knowing that Dharma's attention span is rather short, lawyer Greg is generally guilty of being unsupportive and off trying to keep a rich kid out of jail.

The set-up has some decent comedic moments, especially when Dharma starts giving Charlie some conspiracy theory history lessons that she was taught when she was home schooled by her flower-child parents. Her explanation of her knowledge of plants is a hoot, too.

Charlie, meanwhile, is sharing some of his personal history. He is in the middle of divorce proceedings and doesn't think about his inappropriate behavior with his student.

Dharma is Dharma, which means she initially doesn't think about how flirtatious she is being, until she does something that even surprises her. Next week, she feels guilty about it, of course. She fantasizes about it. She asks for advice from her parents, who are still living in the '60s and more liberal-minded than most Americans. And she gets advice from her conservative mother-in-law, who wants to protect her son from pain.

Next week, once the jokes and risque fantasies end, the resolution is unsatisfying and seems rather out-of-character for someone as honest as Dharma. Certainly, the idea that she will consider shutting up about anything is preposterous.

But then again, this is a sitcom. We shouldn't take it seriously and should know by now that TV will do anything to get our attention in February.

Which brings us back to "Temptation Island." Last Wednesday, the bickering Taheed and Ytossie were booted off the island after she told one of the single men there that she and Taheed had a child together.

In other words, Fox didn't get the information from any of its security checks. Ytossie outed herself -- and Taheed. One of the show's producers sat with them as the cameras rolled. He proceeded to give a self-serving speech on why Fox wouldn't allow a couple with a child to be part of a show that could break a family apart.

In a way, the scene between the producer and this couple was more despicable than anything else in this series. The producer pretended to care about the couple when it was clear from the show's actions that all he and Fox really cared about was ratings.

If the producer had meant what he said, then Fox wouldn't have aired the three previous episodes. Fox allowed America to see all the nastiness between this couple, thereby playing with their lives and revealing all their problems to a voyeuristic nation.

For that, Fox executives should be forced to watch "Dharma & Greg" to hear what Greg's mother believes will be the key to working out a relationship that has dealt with temptation.

Rating: 2 1/2 stars out of 4

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