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'HOMICIDE' IS LOADED WITH MORAL DILEMMAS; A & E'S 'JANE EYRE' IS FIRST-RATE

As Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) says, it's "a time of flux, a time of transition" for the sixth-season premiere of "Homicide: Life on the Street" (10 tonight, Channel 2). And a time for inside baseball.

"We've . . . been on vacation for three months," Detective Frank Pembleton says at the top of the episode.

"It felt like six," replies his partner, Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor).

That's certainly true for fans of the Barry Levinson-Tom Fontana drama, who were as upset at the absence of original episodes for the past month as they were over last season's death of drug dealer Luther Mahoney (who may be dead, but isn't forgotten tonight).

The delay in returning "Homicide" is evident in a comic, secondary baseball plot line in next Friday's second part of a strong three-part story. Kellerman (Reed Diamond) and Munch (Richard Belzer) investigate a murder of a Yankees fan at Camden Yards during a regular-season Orioles game, and meet pitchers Armando Benitez and Scott Erickson. Benitez gave up the playoff home run to Cleveland's Tony Fernandez on Wednesday that ended the Orioles' season, which suggests to any TV detective that the writers thought this episode would run in September.

Now back to some inside baseball. We quickly learn that the rotation of cops dramatically announced in last season's finale is over. Brodie's (Max Perlich) departure from the series is explained by the videographer's decision to move to Hollywood after he won an Emmy for a PBS documentary. "An Emmy," replies Bayliss. "They give those things to anybody."

That's Fontana's inside joke about Emmy voters' failure to appreciate "Homicide." Though the series was named Best Drama by the Television Critics Association last summer, "Law & Order" grabbed the Emmy. "Homicide," meanwhile, grabs the respect of prominent actors.

James Earl Jones stars in the opening three-parter as a prominent African-American citizen and friend of Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). The same night that the happily married Felix Wilson (Jones) gets a community award at a dinner at a Baltimore hotel, his 21-year-old female domestic is found dead in the men's room.

The case puts a racial spin on elements of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case. (Fontana says the spin wasn't intended, but the Ramsey case is addressed during a crossover episode with "Law & Order" that will run during the November sweeps.)

Called "Blood Ties," the three-parter is loaded with moral dilemmas for key characters and also impressively introduces three new cast members.

Wilson and his 28-year-old son, Hal (Jeffrey Wright), are spared questioning by Giardello and Pembleton, who defensively deny they are protecting them because of their race and stature.

The new cast members, Seattle transplant Laura Ballard (Callie Thorne) and Detective Stuart Gharty (Peter Gerety), question the preferable treatment, which antagonizes Pembleton, puts his white partner Bayliss in an awkward situation and culminates in a terrific scene with racial overtones between the four cops next week.

Thorne, a Broadway and film actress who looks like a more slender version of Marisa Tomei, makes a strong initial impression. She looks so slight that a breeze could blow her away, and she's not quite the babe that NBC probably wanted to add to the cast. But she certainly will attract more viewers than Melissa Leo, who played Kay Howard.

Gerety, one of the stars of last season's Steven Bochco flop "Public Morals," also impresses in a larger more outspoken role than he had late last season. The third newcomer, Jon Seda, will be familiar to fans of Fontana's HBO series "Oz." He played a convict who was burned alive in the cable series premiere. Seda has a strong presence again as Paul Falsone, an intuitive cop investigating why a sniper is taking shots at Detectives Kellerman (Reed Diamond), Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Detective Terri Stievers (Toni Lewis).

Jones doesn't get to do much beyond raising his distinguished voice before an impressive scene near the end of the second episode. One can certainly see the possibility of some more powerful scenes in the concluding third part between Jones' character and his wife (Lynne Thigpen). And perhaps they'll get this show a deserved Emmy.

The success of "Homicide" this season could be partially in the hands of Ice-T, the biggest star among the three leads in NBC's cartoonlike 8 p.m. Friday lead-off series from Dick Wolf, "Players."

Ice-T, Costas Mandylor ("Picket Fences") and Frank John Hughes play a funk master, a hunk and a lunkhead who work for the FBI rather than serve time for the crimes they've committed.

"You're a fed?" asks one incredulous lawbreaker.

"Affirmative action," deadpans Ice-T.

In tonight's premiere, the trio has to pull off a variety of stings to get the man who has whacked the FBI agent who hired them. The opener starts with a car chase, proceeds to a subway chase and ends with a limousine ride. It's mostly a predictable journey, though guest star Roy Thinnes does get to play against type.

NBC correctly has given the show a promotional campaign that suggests this show has nothing in common with the rest of the season's new shows. The program has the spirit of NBC's "The A-Team," which became a surprise hit in 1983 starring Mr. T.

Ice-T has a wider acting range and more charm than Mr. T, but "Players" lacks the originality and the sting of the cliched, brain-dead 1980s action adventure series that it so proudly copies.

From Dick Wolf's "Players" to Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," which premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on A & E as a 150th anniversary celebration. Isn't TV quite a smorgasbord?

Samantha Morton (Harriet Smith in last year's highly rated A & E movie "Jane Austen's 'Emma' ") plays our thoughtful, smart, plain-Jane heroine, who grew up without affection in an orphanage, became a refined governess and eventually learned about the true meaning of love from the tortured and passionate man who hired her.

Ciarin Hinds (the villainous Sir Brian in "Ivanhoe") gives the secretive role of Mr. Rochester a devilish Alan Rickman quality that occasionally makes you wonder why plain Jane fell in love with such an arrogant man. But, of course, falling in love is one of life's mysteries.

Morton is first-rate (as is the 10-year-old who plays Jane in the first 10 minutes) in a beautiful adaption of a timeless piece of work. Even if it has been filmed several times before, this "Jane Eyre" shouldn't disappoint all those viewers who previously fell in love with A & E's "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma."

One complaint, however. A & E spreads it over two hours and 30 minutes, which allows for an irritating 45 minutes for commercials.

Ratings: "Homicide": 4 stars out of 5; "Players": 2 stars; "Jane Eyre": 4 stars

In a rare move these days, Channel 4 isn't carrying Sunday's CBS movie starring Victoria Principal, "Barbara Taylor Bradford's 'Love in Another Town.' " It's carrying a local movie instead, which certainly sounds like a financial decision.

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