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COMIC STRIP STAR MOVES TO CLEVER ANIMATED COMEDY SERIES

It's rather unfortunate timing that the first episode of the best UPN series of the season, "Dilbert" (8 tonight, Channel 67), has an anthrax component.

The last thing Western New Yorkers need these days is more talk about anthrax. There have been so many false alarms recently that the media are debating whether running the stories promotes copycats.

The writers of "Dilbert" -- an animated series based on the popular Scott Adams comic strip about corporate craziness -- surely didn't envision how tasteless this subplot would be here.

Unlike the Fox animated series, "Dilbert" really isn't trying to be an edgy comedy that -- as those in the corporate world would say -- "pushes the envelope."

Co-written by Adams and Larry Charles of "Seinfeld," "Dilbert" is a clever skewering of the corporate mind-set that scores with jokes about the French, advertising and marketing, and urgent voice mail messages. Easy targets all.

Daniel Stern, Chris Elliott, Kathy Griffin, Larry Miller, Gordon Hunt (Helen's dad) and Jackie Hoffman provide the voices of the animated characters. For some reason, Dilbert has a mouth only when he talks.

To be honest, I'm not that familiar with the comic strip, which is carried in all editions of The Buffalo News and has inspired a variety of million-dollar marketing tie-ins.

In the TV version, Dilbert (Stern) is a smart but hapless engineer surrounded by Dogbert the manipulative talking dog (Elliott), a dancing mother (Hoffman), cynical business friends Wally (Hunt) and Alice (Griffin) and a pointy-haired boss (Miller) without a clue.

Dilbert's big fear comes in a dream in which all the insanity he deals with turns him into a chicken. At home, he can't beat his cheating dog or mother at Scrabble because they manufacture words with the high-scoring letters Q and Z. At work, he has to score with his boss, who wants him to create a new product after an anthrax-laced throat lozenge killed an entire town and almost took the business with it.

The boss foolishly decides that the name of the product is the first step, which Dilbert disputes by noting that the mouse pad had to be named after it was invented. Dilbert ends up going to Dogbert for some advice and has him leading a corporate brainstorming meeting.

"The first rule of brainstorming is to openly mock the opinions of others," cracks Dogbert, which pretty much explains the tone of the series.

Later, it is decided that a second product name be suggested to the man in charge because "it creates the illusion of leadership."

Many people are under the illusion that "The Drew Carey Show" was inspired by the Dilbert strip. The strip also has some similarities to the NBC series "Working," which stars Fred Savage, the former "Wonder Years" boy whose adult thoughts were voiced by Stern, too.

"Dilbert" has more dry humor than the cartoonish shows that feature actors and is more cleverly written. It also gets away with some inoffensive nudity. But don't expect big laughs. It relies more on viewers recognizing how clever it is. There are no illusions about it. "Dilbert" has the name -- and the writing -- to put local UPN affiliate WNGS on the map.

Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5.

ABC is giving "Strange World," a promising new drama from one of the producers of "The X-Files," a decent chance to catch on by premiering it at 10 p.m. Monday, March 8, and the next night placing it in the "NYPD Blue" Tuesday slot for four weeks.

The move also promises to upset some "Blue" fans, but its hiatus will enable the series to carry all new episodes when it returns in early April.

ABC put "The Practice" in the "Blue" slot a few years ago before moving it. "The Practice" didn't do as well as "Blue" in the slot, with some people connected to the show believing that was because "Blue" fans were upset and went elsewhere.

"Strange World" is about a scientist (series star Tim Guinee) who was exposed to chemical weapons during the Persian Gulf war and is being kept alive by a drug supplied by a mysterious donor while he investigates those who abuse science.

TNT gets the exclusive rights to reruns of "Law & Order" beginning in September 2001 of all new episodes produced starting this season. A year later, it gets the rights to the old episodes now carried by cable's A & E.

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