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A SHOWTIME LESSON FOR NBC: BETTER 'LATELINE' THAN NEVER

It's called "buyer's remorse." In classic form, it goes like this: You've got a 10-year-old station wagon. No one's head whirls as you drive past, but it goes through wind, sleet, mud and snow, and aside from the occasional flat tire and oil change, it has never given you a moment's trouble. It's a great car but you start to think you're not the sort of person who should be driving a 10-year-old station wagon.

So you trade it in and go into debt to get a low-slung foreign convertible. The trouble is your new convertible is drafty in winter, can't go through snow and is a lemon that's in the shop two days a week with one problem or other. The mechanics at your dealership are sick to death of you and the loaner they give you is infinitely less sexy than your old station wagon (which is now being driven happily by a young suburban couple who can't believe their luck).

In prime time television, it's a way of life. New seasons are full of "buyer's remorse." "Seller's remorse," too.

Take the whole "NYPD Blue" mess. It was a great old station wagon, as good a car as any on the road. But ABC played fast and loose with it because the network's original plan -- to move the new divorce soap "Once and Again" to Sunday nights after the new David E. Kelley show "Snoops" tanked big time -- became impracticable after Kelley turned into the Emmy king of the world and the numbers for "Snoops" made it briefly viable. Add the superficial low-slung demographic snazziness of "Once and Again" and you've got a classic case of buyer's remorse on the way.

"Snoops," it turns out, was a watchable TV show but a major lemon. I watched it, as often as not, for four reasons: A) I enjoy numbskull TV, B) I love Gina Gershon, C) I really want to see "The Practice" right after it at 10 p.m. and D) "The X-Files," opposite "Snoops," has gotten far too dweeby and extraterrestrial for my taste lately.

But "Snoops" was enough of a lemon to announce eventually that its original co-star Paula Marshall had been bounced. A bad sign that, a very bad sign. When this actress, who was so delicious in "Cupid," is so unceremoniously yanked from a new show's front line, it's a public admission that the show is a backstage mess. Here, clearly, is a show spending two days a week in the shop.

Not anymore. ABC bit the bullet and announced its cancellation. Meanwhile, "Once and Again," predictably, became thin and soapy and uninviting. Stay tuned for "NYPD Blue" and the restoration of order.

For every bit of "buyer's remorse," there's just as much "seller's remorse," too.

You have to wonder if anyone at NBC is watching Showtime's delightful seven-episode revival of Al Franken's sitcom "Lateline" at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday nights and holding their heads in pain.

As disappointed as I was seeing a political intelligence as antic and sharp as Franken's yoked to a ripoff of the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, it was a very funny sitcom, vastly more clever than almost every other sitcom on the air. The way I see it, a network should move heaven and earth to stick with a show that good and that well cast, just because it's good. "Veronica's Closet" should have been dumped after a week, no matter what its numbers. "Lateline" might never be a Nielsen fiesta but, handled right, it could get a smart, savvy, upscale following, ready to buttonhole people on the street and pass the word.

NBC did what it does with every new sitcom. It gave it half a chance and baled at the first opportunity. Why? Sitcoms grow on trees in cloudland. (So do lemons, but forget I mentioned it.)

Never mind that the cast is as good as any sitcom around -- along with Franken, the estimable Miguel Ferrer (son of Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney), Megyn Price and Robert Foxworth, cunningly cast as a pompous ass of an anchorman.

For those who haven't been watching, here are a few things seen on the new Showtime installments of "Lateline": hilarious pre-show segments in which NBC president Al Wright and Walter Cronkite were mock-interviewed about their intense dislike of the show, an episode in which an attractive pol from the Christian right was exposed as an ex-drunk who once stole a hooker's watch and an even better episode in which Franken's sublimely narrow-minded alter ego Al Freundlich so bedevilled a Martin Sheen disaster movie with asinine, picayune criticisms that the multi-million dollar blockbuster collapsed in mid-production. (Sheen was particularly inspired in his portrayal of a common form of megastar pretentiousness.)

Every new "Lateline" episode (would you believe that the next falls on Christmas night? Merry Christmas) is a rebuke to NBC for not thinking it all the way through.

Presidential politics have actually become interesting again (Al Gore and Bill Bradley are scheduled to have at it on this Sunday's "Meet the Press" at 9 a.m. on Channel 2) and Franken is a sociopolitical wit of seasoned sharpness who has some of the best connections anywhere. There was no way that "Lateline" wouldn't get better as it went along -- the very opposite of a lemon, no matter how shaky one episode might be.

In its newfound mission as American media's Court of Last Resort, Showtime has, once again, found someone else's unholy mess and straightened it out splendidly.

'Tis the season, you know?

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