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SPUNKY TEENS BATTLE GERIATRIC TV FOR HEARTS AND HORMONES

It's called "Cabin by the Lake" (9 p.m. Tuesday, USA Network). It answers the bedeviling question you have no doubt been asking all your friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers for months now: "What do you suppose Judd Nelson has been doing since 'Suddenly Susan'?" He plays a teen-scream screenwriter with writer's block and a hectoring yentah of an agent. He's researching his next fright flick by imprisoning leggy post-teen girls, drowning them and then tending and cultivating their corpses in a kind of undersea garden.

It has the requisite number of snarky double-entendres for a modern teen-screamer, not to mention the standard teen-scream plot of a slightly older man as the serial-killing villain and the spunky young woman as the heroine. (Hidden theme: all older men are perverts and you're absolutely right to be terrified of them.)

Nelson gets a lot of cold-eye closeups to prove that he's mad as 12 hatters. Before he drowns his young kidnap victims, he keeps them shackled in a hidden room, where he insists on making them godawful sandwiches on toast and doing their laundry. (Yes, doing their laundry.) In large letters, he writes on the wall of their makeshift cell "DO I SCARE YOU?"

The spunky heroine (Hedy Burress), whom he unsuccessfully tries to drown twice (don't ask), writes underneath it, "NO. DO I SCARE YOU?"

To which I say, "NEITHER ONE OF YOU SCARES ME IN THE SLIGHTEST."

But then, I am clearly not the intended audience for this baby. What did scare me was that screenwriter C. David Stephens sat somewhere and, in a fit of frustration, wrote a story about a frustrated and crazy screenwriter who knocks off young girls. This is not a fellow I'd want to see next door caulking his boat in a cabin by the lake -- especially not if I had teen-age daughters. If you're a dedicated student of the crummier wonders of cable TV (and I am), you'll notice an enormous increase in the number of B-grade (and worse) movies about the process of making movies. (Hidden theme No. 1: Entry level Hollywood is much too hard on its aspirants. Hidden theme No. 2: A lot of Hollywood aspirants are getting big creative opportunities long before they're really ready.)

The USA movie was produced by Neil Moritz, producer of "I Know What You Did Last Summer," which, in the judgment of young male connoisseurs on the Internet and testosterone cable shows, is the bosomiest of teen screamers. This sort of thing is of paramount importance to young boys, and far be it from me to make sport.

I'm mentioning all this because jokey horror and teen screamers are prime movie fodder ("Scream 3" opens next week in response to our many requests) and, it now seems, are growing feverishly on TV, too. This is the stuff Dawson Leery tried to make in his first cinematic effort in Capeside.

Jokey horror is also the staple of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the TV show that has proved to me definitively that I'm ready to be shipped off to the home (to play cribbage and eat macaroons with Livia Soprano, no doubt).

A large number of people I respect -- including TV critic Tom Carson -- have nothing but adulation for "Buffy." "Buffy" cultists include a large number of hip older types who, in truth, get a little annoyed at all the hormonal ditherings on "Felicity."

On six separate occasions, I've manfully tried to watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" all the way through. On my best day, I actually got to the halfway mark before deciding that life was too short for a minute more of "Buffy." There are too many good books to read. There's too much good music to listen to.

After a half-hour of "Buffy," a half-hour on a treadmill begins to seem like an interesting alternative. This, I know, places me firmly among the geriatric outcasts of TV prime time.

So, as long as I'm out here, I decided to take a very quick look around at geriatric TV. I started watching a couple of TV favorites whose audience demographic is decidedly north of high school -- "Diagnosis Murder" and "JAG."

"Diagnosis Murder" is a terrible show, a kind of combination of "Quincy" and "Matlock" and "Murder, She Wrote" and "The Love Boat," which could only please a producer like Fred Silverman, who was once king of TV in the age of "Quincy" and "The Love Boat," etc.

The less said.

"JAG," it turns out to my shock, is a superb television show. It has a long way to go before it gets on the same level as "The Sopranos" or "The West Wing" or "The Practice" or "NYPD Blue" but, on the very next level down, it has earned a solid place. Its military characters are ripe, sexually and emotionally. They're at an age when they are coping with adult problems and misgivings and, by and large, doing so in adult ways.

It's well-cast. There's the 30-something stud military pilot/attorney (David James Elliott), the well-curved partner who now outranks him (Catherine Bell), the tough, stone-bald superior officer (John M. Jackson) and the sweet, dweeby young couple in the throes of new parenthood (Karri Turner and Patrick Laboryteaux).

Plots are surprisingly varied, affecting and dimly recognizable from the real world; characters evolve.

And, bless us all, nobody on the show is writing a teen-scream film script.

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