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'SPORTS NIGHT' GROWS ON YOU, 'ENCORE! ENCORE!' FALLS FLAT, CRAWFORD IS UPSTAGED

Sex, sports, opera. And all in one night. First let's talk "Sports Night," the new ABC series (9:30 tonight, Channel 7) that is set at a cable sports show similar to ESPN's "SportsCenter."

In other words, what we have here is a series inspired by ABC's more financially successful Disney brother.

If you're looking primarily for laughs, "Sports Night" will lose you. This is a series that often plays more like a half-hour drama than a comedy.

It wants its viewers to realize that hosting a sports show is far from all fun and games.

Peter Krause (the son-in-law on "Cybill") and Josh Charles star as Casey McCall and Dan Rydell, co-anchors and best buddies for the Continental Sports Channel.

Casey is the more sarcastic and initially more interesting of the two. Think Dan Patrick or Kenny Mayne. But next week, we learn that Dan has better musical taste and had an outrageous side, too.

The strong ensemble cast includes Felicity Huffman as the channel's strong, smart and sexy producer, Dana; Joshua Malina as a nerdy research analyst who probably knows how far every one of Mark McGwire's or Sammy Sosa's home runs traveled; Sabrina Lloyd as producer Natalie Hurley, and Robert Guillaume as Isaac Jaffee, the channel's wise leader.

Written by Aaron Sorkin ("The American President") and produced by University at Buffalo graduate Rob Scheidlinger, the opening "Sports Night" has some winning moments concerning cynical Casey's crisis at home.

His pending divorce has hit him harder than a Sosa line drive, and his romance with sports has been shattered by all the court cases he has to report on the highlights show.

One of the stronger parts of the pilot is Casey's tirade about his fears of making sports heroes of the "punks and thugs" to his 7-year-old son. But it isn't exactly what you expect from a comedy.

Naturally, Casey and sports are redeemed by episode's end in a scene that is as shamelessly manipulative -- and as effective -- as most up-close-and-personal Olympic pieces.

It's Dan's turn to move viewers in Episode 2, when he is forced to apologize on the air for misinterpreted remarks he made in a magazine article about drugs. In a "Larry Sanders"-like touch, the network is overly sensitive and wants Dan to apologize.

Before doing so, Dan properly gets chastised by his supportive boss for an inappropriate civil rights comparison. It's one of the strongest scenes in the episode and it doesn't even try to be funny.

Even though Isaac agrees with Dan that he shouldn't have to apologize for the article, he orders him to apologize anyway.

"This is TV and this is how it is done," Isaac explains pragmatically.

My initial reaction to the "Sports Night" pilot was that it was among the season's most overrated. But once you accept the idea that it often isn't trying to be funny, it grows on you.

This is TV, but this isn't how TV half-hour shows are usually done.

If subsequent episodes balance comedy and sentiment as well as the second one, I'll be the one apologizing.

Ratings: "Sports Night": 3 1/2 stars out of 5.

The series certainly scores more than "Encore! Encore!" (8:30 tonight, Channel 2), the troubled new NBC series in which Nathan Lane plays Joseph Pinoni, an opera singer who loses his voice after surgery in Italy and returns to his family's California winery to whine.

Lane is wasted along with Glenne Headley as his sister, Francesa, and Joan Plowright as his mother, Marie. The cast of characters from the folks who gave us "Frasier" include a teen-age nephew, Michael (Trevor Fehrman), and a limousine driver whom Joe drives nuts. Literally.

Despite Lane's best efforts to play -- and overplay -- a self-involved, pampered, egotistical womanizer, most of the jokes are flat, silly and repetitive.

The only real laugh is a shot at "Friends" by Joe, even though he is playing someone who is unlikely ever to have seen the NBC series.

Because it's from the "Frasier" writing team, you hope "Encore" will improve with time. But right now all this show set in the Napa Valley will inspire is a nap.

"Encore! Encore!": 2 stars.

Now on to "Sex With Cindy Crawford" (10 tonight, Channel 7), a provocative title if there ever was one.

Crawford has been making the rounds lately, appearing in a Playboy spread and visiting David Letterman.

The thesis of this MTV-like documentary is that you need someone like Crawford to get America talking about sex 50 years after the Kinsey Report.

Unfortunately, Crawford was upstaged by the Starr Report, which has heightened sexual discussion and shattered some of her thesis.

The program also spends a great deal of time lamenting the obsession the media have with sex while at the same time emulating it.

If you really think you can learn anything about our society by watching Crawford interview responsible college students, happily married old couples, gay couples and psychologists, this is the show for you.

To be honest, I don't expect many people will have much to talk about -- unless they are surprised by Crawford's early confession to having a one-night stand.

In the end, "Sex With Cindy Crawford" is guilty of the ultimate TV sin: It's boring.

"Sex With Cindy Crawford": 2 stars.

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