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BRANSON, 'BLUE' COME THROUGH WITH HELP FROM ABOVE

Sir Richard Branson goes high up on a hot-air balloon tonight on a new Fox reality show, Jimmy Smits comes down from heaven on "NYPD Blue." I'm not sure which trip I was looking forward to the least.

But surprisingly, I wasn't as deflated as much as I expected to be.

First things first. Branson, the founder and chairman of the Virgin Group of Companies, follows Donald Trump (NBC's "The Apprentice") and Mark Cuban (ABC's canceled "The Benefactor") in the Billionaire's Club of TV reality stars with his Fox show, "The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best" (8 tonight, WUTV).

It starts off Cuban-like with two contestants out of 16 hoping to run Branson's empire getting booted off for behavior they didn't realize was being monitored. I'm immediately thinking how unfair and how stupid to copy a show that flopped miserably. But then Branson smartly appears ready to take the show into "Fear Factor" and "Amazing Race" territory.

He puts half of the remaining contestants on a hot-air balloon and asks them to walk across a plank to another balloon next to it while they are 10,000 feet in the air. This freaks out one woman who is deathly afraid of heights. Since I won't get on a step stool without getting dizzy, I felt her pain.

To make matters worse, anyone who fails to get across will then have to conquer an even bigger height obstacle or possibly miss out on a trip to Hong Kong.

It's unclear how this adventurous test enables Branson to learn whether someone is capable of running his empire, but the fear is so palpable that I almost couldn't look and actually began to sweat when I did. The show also concocts a clever way of revealing who is the loser, though I certainly wasn't surprised by Branson's choice.

We could do without Branson's occasional pronouncements that "I'm seeking quite simply the best" and "this is a leap into the unknown," "this is a serious journey" and "I want to see humans perform under pressure."

Even with Branson's British accent, they all sound like pure hot air that could keep his balloon afloat.

But the hour preview of this two-hour show supplied by Fox is surprisingly suspenseful and occasionally soars as entertainment. I advise you to give it a ride, unless you're so sick of reality TV that nothing will float your boat.

Now on to "NYPD Blue" (10 tonight, WKBW), which after a slow start in its final season, is back with a strong story line about the deteriorating relationship between Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and his self-destructive partner, John Clark (Mark-Paul Gosselaar).

ABC has revealed in promos that Smits' deceased character, Bobby Simone, comes down from heaven in a raincoat in tonight's episode, "The Vision Thing," to give his old partner some much-needed counseling.

I know what you're thinking. I was thinking it, too. It looks like "a jump the shark" moment, where the show is 10,000 feet in the air and has no point of return.

Though I wished "Blue" hadn't gone there, the low-key four- or five-minute scene between Sipowicz and Simone is surprisingly affecting, brings things into sharper focus and has a decent emotional payoff. That is no small accomplishment, with Franz and Smits deserving credit for pulling off the nearly impossible. I just wish I could see the outtakes, because I imagine there was some laughter involved.

Besides that out-of-this world story line, Dennis Christopher ("Breaking Away") appears as an antique dealer who befriends John Irvin (Bill Brochtrup), and Gregg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) takes a job as a bouncer. Gregg's illegal activity upsets Andy and is bound to lead to no good down the road, because the insecure Medavoy doesn't have a guardian angel to advise him.

By the way, this is quite a week for Smits' fans. On Wednesday, he makes his first appearance on "The West Wing" as a Houston congressman who eventually will run for president. His character isn't expected to be angelic, but he's a good guy.

Ratings: "The Rebel Billionaire": 3 stars out of 4; "NYPD Blue": 3 stars

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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