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IN DESPERATION MOVE, ABC JAZZES UP SATURDAY NIGHT

It's the major rule of thumb of network TV viewing: Look for failure. And then relish it. It's usually a harbinger of good TV to come.

Seek out the bottom-rated network. Find the nights where the ratings are positively pitiful. And then, in your mind, erect a large neon billboard that says, "Watch this space."

Sooner or later, it will occur to some network programming geniuses to put watchable TV shows there.

Right now, that means ABC on Saturday nights. ABC is the cellar-dweller among the networks, so dank down there that on some nights cobwebs used to form in the corners and mold was beginning to line the baseboards. And Saturday night is the night when, presumably, everyone who doesn't go through life with an ear trumpet and a walker is out and about, partying down, living it up and lengthening the box office lines at your neighborhood movie multiplex.

So what does ABC do on Saturday nights? In desperation and semi-imitation of NBC's last-season attempts to create a "Thrillogy" there, ABC has found two good new TV shows and one very good not-totally-new one and put them all together with a little promotional and presentational pizzazz.

None of this is going to win ABC any awards or capture 10 million more viewer eyes, but it's good enough for me.

There's a nice "hey-get-this-will-ya?" spirit to what they're doing on Saturday. For a while they had two fictional Siskel-and-Eberting convicts named George and Leo threading through and introducing each of the evening's programs -- the two new shows, "C-16" and the Bochco toss-off "Total Security," and the ABC Saturday night finale, that very good but struggling show "The Practice," which is the TV show that clinches David E. Kelley's position as authentic wonder of the age. How one man can keep "Chicago Hope" afloat and maintain the continued excellence of "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal" at the same time (writing many of the scripts of each himself) is beyond me.

The covert heroine in all this may be poor Jamie Tarses, the bruised, abused, rattled and embattled ABC executive who was, not too long ago, supposedly on her way to Siberia but who turns out to have presided over some pretty fair TV shows after all. Granted, many of them were in development long before she ascended to poobah-hood, but they're indisputably on the air and she's still in her chair, which means that she didn't do anything to screw them up.

Given the way things so often work in network television, that is no small thing.

In fact, the "George and Leo" convicts who do their little intros and outros for each show are a very droll spoof of the Siskel and Ebert Dueling-Thumbs School of Entertainment Chatter.

Frankly, I couldn't care less if ABC ever gets ratings out of these shows -- or out of "Cracker" on Thursday nights, where it commits weekly hara-kiri against "Seinfeld."

I'm just happy as can be that they're there.

My own report on "C-16" and "Total Security" -- without George and Leo's promotional drolleries:

"C-16": They're a special and secret department of the FBI, responsible only to their own rules and their own sense of Truth, Justice and the American Way.

So far, so do "X-Files" and "Profiler."

They're led by Eric Roberts, brother of Julia and a fellow who almost tabloided himself into Jan Michael Vincenthood. He's a pretty good actor who, for a while, seemed to be busily engaged in throwing away his career with both hands. Now he's one of TV's Class of 1997.

He plays one of Hollywood's time-honored bureaucratic rule-benders. All he has to do is be respectfully unconventional and to furrow his brows aptly at the possible fate of young kidnap victims and other endangered people. Roberts -- an actor of once-proven seriousness -- could do that in his sleep, even on his old pharmacologic regimen.

The actors and production team around him, though, are really quite passable, which makes the show a very pleasant hour for those who'd rather eat ground glass than watch "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" across the dial.

"Total Security": Or " '77 Sunset Strip' Goes Bochco." This is a very smart show, though not so smart that there will be a quiz later.

The idea is that there are no such things as traditional Hollywood private eyes anymore. There are, instead, highly paid security types whose job it is to evict deadbeat Arab diplomats from $5,000-a-night hotel suites and to keep a watchful eye on itchy nymphet actresses who make $5 million a picture. (The episode eight days ago featured a young teen-age actress whose story was clearly based on Drew Barrymore's but not so much that anyone needed a libel lawyer.)

To do such haute-dirty work, you need the security bunch in this show, most notably James Remar and Jim Belushi as a kind of Abbott and Costello pair. Remar plays the uptight, perfectly discreet, immaculately combed and pressed fellow who runs the company; Belushi plays the unbuttoned, uncontrolled operative and reprobate he keeps on salary just to keep things lively.

Debrah Farentino is the team's ace operative. She's also the resident sexual tension for Remar, who aimes his Kahlua bass voice at her, alternately, as friend, boss and possible lover. Remar's pipes are way down there in the Lance Henricksen class, which means that you've been hearing his voice for years on commercial voiceovers. In movies, he usually plays psychos and bad guys. It was a smart idea on someone's part to clean him up, slick back his hair, put him in expensive suits and have him carry a series.

As soon as they finish fine-tuning Belushi's lecherous Lou Costello act and give Remar and Farentino a relationship with a little more juice to it, "Total Security" could turn out to be a good deal of midlevel fun.

And then, capping off ABC's Saturday night, is "The Practice," a worthy hourlong drama by any definition.

If only it weren't scheduled to go head to head against Ally Walker and "Profiler."

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