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'NEWSRADIO' FAILS IN HARTMAN FAREWELL, BUT 'DHARMA'S' ADOPTION THEME FLIES

Tonight, you can see a birth on ABC's "Dharma and Greg" (Channel 7, 8 o'clock) and a funeral on NBC's "NewsRadio" (Channel 2, 9:30).

Not surprisingly, there are more laughs in the birth episode.

"NewsRadio" tries to pull off the tough trick of saying goodbye to the late Phil Hartman and his character, Bill McNeal, in a humorous way.

However, it's difficult to separate the real-life tragic murder-suicide of Hartman and his wife from the death of his fictional character from a heart attack.

The exercise seems more likely to satisfy cast members' need for closure than the audience's needs for laughs.

The joke is that Bill knew his fellow radio employers so well that he predicted their reaction to his death and tried to help them cope in letters that were supposed to be opened only if he went to the great beyond.

For instance, he knew that News Director Dave Nelson (Dave Foley) would talk too long at his memorial service and that accident-prone Matthew Brock (Andy Dick) wouldn't really believe he had died. Bill also leaves a little something for owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root), news writer Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney), sassy secretary Beth (Vicki Lewis) and electrician/conspiracy theorist Joe Garelli (Joe Rogan). They each deal with Bill's death differently. Khandi Alexander, who plays Bill's old rival, Catherine, also shows up and hears Bill reveal a surprise about their relationship.

As much as it tries to balance being funny and poignant, this bittersweet episode never really hits an emotional or humorous high.

It unintentionally ends up making one wonder if the series can survive the loss of Hartman's outlandish character, who undoubtedly would have abhorred the sentiment.

We'll begin finding out if it can survive Hartman's loss next week when his "Saturday Night Live" friend Jon Lovitz comes aboard as Hartman's replacement.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Unburdened by any serious issues, "Dharma and Greg" opens with the lead flower child (Jenna Elfman) adopting a pregnant checkout girl and suggesting to Greg (Thomas Gibson) that they eventually adopt her child, too.

Naturally, this isn't Greg's style. He's still the good conservative boy his repressed parents raised.

When Dharma suggests adoption, Greg forgets his impulsive decision to marry Dharma last year and says, "You can't make a decision that's going to affect the rest of your life on the spur of the moment."

Sounds like good advice, whether you're a lawyer or a president.

The setup is ideal for parental involvement, with Dharma's hippie parents all for the adoption and Greg's folks aghast that they would even consider it.

The best lines fall to Susan Sullivan, who plays Greg's stuffy mother to the hilt. She makes punch lines like "Oh, Gregory, don't be vulgar" and "That's what nuns are for" really sing.

Unfortunately, the resolution of whether Dharma and Greg become parents doesn't occur until next week, because this is a two-parter. That said, Part 1 ends with a big surprise that may further highlight different grandparental attitudes next week.

Rating: 4 stars.

"Homicide" producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson have signed a deal to create an hour drama for UPN. Fontana will write and produce the series, which has a six-episode commitment for midseason this year or next fall. Fontana has been somewhat frustrated the past two years making pilots for CBS and ABC, so the move to a less established network willing to take more risks makes sense.

Fontana and fellow Buffalo State College graduate Diane English are raising a substantial amount of money to rehabilitate the college's Upton Theater and rename it after their mentor, Warren Enters. Fontana said he has raised $250,000 of his goal of $660,000. NBC and HBO -- which carries the Fontana series "Oz" -- contributed.

"I'm trying to get money from outside Buffalo from the television industry," explained Fontana.

English is just as supportive, with there being some talk that she is making this a friendly competition to see who can raise more money.

Stephanie Miller has exited as host of the new Fox Channel series "Show Me the Funny" in order to develop her own comedy series. Fox says her departure was mutually agreed upon. She also hosts a radio program in Los Angeles.

Reached at her home in Los Angeles, Miller said the show's edgy direction was changed after she was hired.

"It's like every television show has its own little nightmare," said Miller. "Hiring me for this was like hiring Ted Nugent to write the love song for 'Beauty and the Beast.' "

Quote of the week: Courtesy of Matt Lauer, co-host of NBC's "Today." While interviewing Calista Flockhart about the absurdity of the coed bathroom on "Ally McBeal," Lauer said he'd find the circumstance uncomfortable.

"I'd hold it until I got home," said Lauer.

Thanks for sharing, Matt.

Flockhart then explained that David E. Kelley created the absurd plot device because of a lack of set space.

Don't you just love those network polls in which the public is asked if President Clinton committed perjury? Even lawyers the networks hire differ on whether he committed perjury, because the legal definition goes beyond just lying.

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