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'MAD,' 'HOME' SEASON DEBUTS DISAPPOINT, BUT 'FRASIER' IS FUNNIER THAN EVER

Enough with the new shows. Let's check in on the season premieres of some of television's best comedies and dramas.

The long-awaited season premiere of "Mad About You" (8 tonight, Channel 2) is about as funny as postpartum depression.

The disappointment is heightened because last season's finale -- in which Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt) finally had a baby girl -- was so amusing.

The show picks up with Jamie and Paul (Paul Reiser) bringing their unnamed child home. Every cliche about clueless first-time parents is played, with little amusement. How low does it go? The newborn's bodily functions are ripe for some bad jokes.

The only amusing comment comes from Hal (Paxton Whitehead), the British boyfriend of the neighbor across the hall: "They've had a child?"

Jamie can't figure out how to put on a diaper, even though it's so easy now that 12-year-old baby sitters can do it. Because Jamie's so inept, she can't wait to see her experienced mother (Carol Burnett), who has an acronym for every occasion. For example, TUBA stands for Tuck Under Both Arms, Grandma's directions for swaddling a baby.

Paul's parents also get in on the act, expressing the same displeasure as his in-laws over Jamie and Paul's failure to give the kid a name yet.

By episode's end, one of Grandma's acronyms becomes the child's name. I won't reveal it, other than to say that it's the female equivalent of Ira (John Pankow), the name of Paul's cousin.

One expects the name won't last long, because it's greeted by family members with the same blank expressions that viewers probably will get from watching an opener that has the aroma of a dirty diaper.

More satisfying is the hilarious opener of four-time Emmy winner "Frasier" (9 tonight, Channel 2). The series picks up where last season left off, with the lovesick psychologist impulsively heading to Acapulco on an airplane.

Soon he meets a brainy supermodel, Kelly (Sela Ward), who falls into Frasier's arms after breaking up with a Seattle Seahawk. Hard to believe?

That's the point. Frasier's friends and family think he's making everything up. It doesn't help that the supermodel has sworn Frasier to secrecy because she hasn't ended it with her football star.

The show's title cards cleverly use names of memorable Alfred Hitchcock movies -- "Shadow of a Doubt," "The Lady Vanishes" and "Psycho."

As usual, Kelsey Grammer deliciously mugs his way through the half-hour -- wait until you see how he plays his redemption scene. "Frasier" is set for another super season. And let's hope Ward returns despite how badly her character's relationship with Frasier ends.

While "Frasier" continues to cook, its higher-rated ABC competition, "Home Improvement" (9 tonight, Channel 7), opens with the Taylors heading for some barbecues on a summer vacation on Lake Michigan. While Tim (Tim Allen) appears to be having a midlife crisis that concerns Jill (Patricia Richardson), his three adolescent sons sink and swim in the dating pool. Now that Brad, Randy and Mark have grown, "Home" doesn't look much different from "Saved by the Bell." And the opener isn't much funnier, either.

NBC's other Emmy Award-winning series, "Law & Order," returns Wednesday (10 p.m., Channel 2) with a powerful episode, "Thrill," that helps one understand how it can be named Best Drama when no actor is honored. The reason -- the stories are the stars.

After Detectives Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) painstakingly investigate a thrill murder of a delivery boy by two teen-agers, the drama accelerates with the complex legal maneuvering conducted by Assistant District Attorneys Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) and Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell).

The defense lawyers for the two young men think they can win by pinning the crime on each other's client. "Clarence Darrow got Leopold and Loeb," notes District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill). "Who do we get?"

"Beavis and Butt-head," replies McCoy.

The case has a couple of sharp legal twists, not all of which are plausible. A religious twist is the most compelling and resonates with Curtis because of a personal situation in his life.

All in all, this strong episode should appeal strongly to religious "Law & Order" viewers.

ABC gives its terrific David E. Kelley legal drama "The Practice" (10 tonight, Channel 7) a chance to shine on before the season premiere of "NYPD Blue" returns in the time slot next week.

John Larroquette shines in a complex case about a homosexual man, Joey Heric, involved in a love-triangle murder. Obviously relishing this over-the-top role, Larroquette should add to his Emmy collection playing a man who knows how to twist the law in knots better than any defense lawyer. After this, "The Practice" is sentenced back to oblivion on Saturday night.

Ratings: "Mad About You": 2 stars out of 5; "Frasier": 4 1/2 stars; "Home Improvement": 2 1/2 stars; "Law & Order": 4 1/2 stars; "The Practice": 4 stars.

She didn't get to strut up to the podium on the prime-time Emmys, but local product Marguerite Pomerhn Derricks won an Emmy for Outstanding Choreography for the "A Nightmare on Dick Street" episode of "3rd Rock From the Sun" last season. She won her award a week before the prime-time Emmys were distributed, during the Creative Arts Emmy Awards.

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