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SATURDAY BOUTS PIT FANTASY, 'CUPID' VS. MARTIAL ARTS

It says something about the state of Saturday night television that NBC's 11:30 program, "Saturday Night Live," often gets higher ratings than prime-time offerings.

Saturday night is generally viewed as a time to watch movies and football on cable, rent a video or shut the darn thing off and go out. But in hopes of reversing the trend, the networks are adding some decent programs.

The big battle at 9 tonight is Sammo Hung in CBS' "Martial Law" vs. Malcolm McDowell in the updated ABC version of "Fantasy Island."

This is the week of free Diet Coke plugs, with Hung sharing President Clinton's love of the soft drink. A viewer should be able to tell if he or she will get a kick out of a steady diet of martial arts scenes within a few minutes when Hung takes out several villains.

The joke is that the heavy and innocent-looking Hung doesn't look like a martial arts expert.

"That guy looks like a cook," says his future partner, Dana (Tammy Lauren of "Homefront"). The story of how and why Hung moves from Shanghai to Los Angeles is superfluous to the enjoyment of this comic, silly, repetitive series. Kids may love it. Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars.

This also is the night of game show plugs. Sammo plays "The Price Is Right" at about the same time two sisters on "Fantasy Island" play a revealing version of "Jeopardy!" that Kenneth Starr probably would endorse. With McDowell switching from a white suit to a darker one as the new Mr. Roarke, this Barry Sonnenfeld ("Get Shorty") version of the old series looks great (Madchen Amick of "Twin Peaks" is in the cast). It also has some clever touches (old-timers Fyvush Finkel of "Picket Fences" and Sylvia Sidney as travel agents) and dialogue. And it ends with a message that should suit viewers of the old syrupy series just fine. Rating: 3 stars.

At 10 o'clock, CBS' "Walker, Texas Ranger" battles ABC's "Cupid" -- tough man Chuck Norris vs. the 140-pound weakling Jeremy Piven ("Ellen"). "Cupid" doesn't stand a chance.

That's too bad. "Cupid" is a sweet, sentimental show in which Piven plays a goofy guy, Trevor Hale, who believes he is Cupid and tries to convince his shrink, a relationship expert named Claire Allen (Paula Marshall). They have an "X-Files"-type relationship. Cupid is Mulder, the believer in passion, and Marshall is Scully, the clinical skeptic who believes more in friendship and compatibility. If this loving "Cupid" doesn't work opposite Norris, ABC should move it opposite "Martial Law."

Rating: 3 1/2 stars.

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