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CABLE'S 'SOUL FOOD' ADDS SPICE TO SUMMER

It is summer, the time to look for something new and different. And I'm not talking about the tasteless junk that NBC has been airing in a surprisingly successful attempt to keep viewers from heading to cable.

If "Fear Factor" and "Spy TV" have done anything besides make us realize how low a network will go, it is to make us appreciate some cable offerings.

Showtime's "Soul Food" (10 tonight, pay-cable) is a delectable, tender blend of tasty family themes with a sweet religious undercurrent, spiced up by beautiful-looking actors and actresses.

Based on the hit movie, this series ended its first season with a devastating automobile accident that altered the lives of a multi-generational African-American family in Chicago.

At the center of it all is the rock of the three Joseph sisters, high-powered attorney Teri Joseph, played by the wondrous Nicole Parker.

Teri leaves her job temporarily to help sister Maxine Chadway (Vanessa Williams) with her children so Maxine can run the family towing business while her husband, Kenny (Rockmond Dunbar), recuperates from his injuries. Teri also has to give emotional support to younger sister Tracy "Bird" Van Adams (Malinda Williams), who develops an embarrassing medical condition after the accident that threatens her relationship with her husband, Lem (Darrin DeWitt Henson). Meanwhile, Teri's boyfriend, Damon Carter (Boris Kodjoe), is so guilt-ridden that he was driving that he isn't in the mood for anything but sulking.

And then there's Teri's law firm, a cold-hearted outfit that is willing to risk losing a prized and talented African-American associate if she puts family before her job for too long.

The accident also has deeply affected Maxine and Kenny's 12-year-old son, Ahmad (Aaron Meeks), who speaks to his dead grandmother and has to be convinced that he isn't somehow responsible for a curse that seems to hover around the family.

The season's first two episodes are quite involving as the sisters attempt to get their lives - and men - on track. And unlike some cable offerings, "Soul Food" keeps the sexual and crude language content to a reasonable level. It is there on "Soul Food," but it isn't overdone.

Teri's strength is best revealed in the powerful scene in which the suits in her law firm try to manipulate her out of a partnership. It is impossible not to root for Teri in or out of the courtroom.

Commercial television's inability to get a large enough audience to keep a black-oriented drama on the air is well-documented, with the latest failure being CBS' "City of Angels" last season.

Showtime doesn't need a large audience, just one as devoted as the Joseph sisters are to their family. And the pay-service, which has a large minority audience, is feeding its subscribers a quality show with universal themes that should relate to everyone.

Rating: 3 stars out of 4

Showtime's newest series, "The Chris Isaak Show," ends its first oddball season at 10 p.m on Monday with a spoof of VH-1's "Behind the Music," replete with tall tales about the musician's life from celebrities, some of whom even knew him.

The joke is that Isaak has lived too normal and dull a life to make an interesting show, though he did have the heartache of growing up in California without a swimming pool. The show's publicist, Dana (Samantha Ferris), tries to find something - anything - to build the show around and promote. An addiction or an out-of-wedlock child would be preferable.

"Like most people, I did marijuana and heroin," says Isaak. "I don't consider them drugs because they are God's flowers." Then he reveals he's kidding. "I've never smoked a cigarette," he confesses.

Dana eventually gets a clue about a possible sexy topic from band member Anson (Jed Ress), whom she uses in other pay-cable ways. A third sub-plot finds Isaak's manager, Yola (Kristin Dattilo), feeling guilty for accidentally getting a deaf-and-blind masseuse fired.

As in most episodes, the finale has some funny moments but is way too long. If "Isaak" comes back next season, Showtime should cut it from an hour to a half-hour. It certainly would have been easy to eliminate the deaf-and-blind story line.

Rating: 2 1/2 stars

The third cable premiere this week is the return of "The Man Show" (10 p.m, Sunday, Comedy Central), which stars Fox NFL pregame forecaster Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla.

Built on a politically incorrect premise that men love their beer cold and their women hot, and that nothing is too tasteless to poke fun at, this season's first two episodes go far enough to make you wonder if Comedy Central has become a pay-cable channel and Howard Stern is the show's censor.

The show's attitude is revealed early, when Kimmel introduces a videotape of a cousin who moons his unsuspecting friend as he lies asleep on the couch watching a football game. Naturally, the partly camouflaged scene is replayed, with the aid of a telestrator.

Then, it's off to a doctor's office where our hosts compete in a reproductive race and trade witticisms with the doctor grading their efforts. There also is a feature, "Strip Club Do's and Don'ts," that should be helpful for anyone headed to the Canadian ballet this summer. And then there is one bit I can't even begin to discuss.

Finally, there's some funny, tasteless bashing of Oprah, the sensitive talk show host who has entered the magazine field to spread her spirited message to women. If "The Man Show" is nothing else, it is the anti-Oprah. Next week, our two hosts pretend to be drunken airline pilots, frightening passengers in the process. It is one of the tamer bits of the first two shows, which at least aren't as mean-spirited as "Spy TV."

Is "The Man Show" crude, tasteless, sophomoric and silly? Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty. Be warned. That said, I felt a little guilty for laughing so much. If Isaak did anything as outrageous as the goings-on at "The Man Show," surely it would have landed on "Behind the Music."

Rating: 2 1/2 stars

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