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IN TV'S NEWEST GENRE, YOU CAN ALWAYS GO HOME AGAIN

Here's the story TV really likes telling us these days: somebody makes a lot of money in New York or Los Angeles or Washington. Or they acquire a big reputation there. And then, for some reason, they wind up going back home to Providence or Hartford or some nameless cozy small town where everyone knows everyone else's name and shoe size.

John Masius' "Providence" was the first one to tell us this story this particular way. In addition, it had the genius to make heroine Syd's dad a veterinarian, thereby adding a parade of lovable pooches and whimpering bunny rabbits to the mix.

In "Crossing Jordan," a clumsy mess of a new show clearly derived from the hit "CSI," a sexy and obsessive medical examiner chucks the anger-management classes now required of her on her job in Big Time U.S.A. and goes back home to Boston, to work at reduced salary for the department where she got her start.

In the mild but endearing "The Ellen Show," Ellen DeGeneres plays a dotcom millionaire who loses it all in the delete-button economy and goes back home to her lovably befuddled mother and a sister who seems determined to date the lowest life forms on the continent.

What gives here?

I think we now have a whole generation of TV writers and producers who have driven themselves mercilessly to achieve and triumph in the very difficult world of coastal showbiz, only to find themselves richer and more powerful but not necessarily a whole lot happier than if they had stayed home in Oshkosh, by gosh.

Or so they tell themselves anyway. And on dateless or sexless or migrainous weekends after working 10 18-hour days in a row, they're no doubt ready to believe it, too. Whether they still feel that way at the end of Thanksgiving weekend, after a few pounds of home-cooked turkey, stuffing and unimpressed relatives have done their magic, is another matter.

Then again, maybe they don't believe it at all but know full well that the folks back home clearly wish they did. And the folks back home, after all, are the audience.

Voila! Hometown TV, the new "home is where the heart is" genre that we're seeing on the networks wall to wall.

The first episode of "Crossing Jordan" was a little like the wonderful JUMBLE game that appears in The Buffalo News every day. All the letters were there for a real word -- say DRIMBO, to take one that stopped me for a while earlier in the week, before I figured out the word was MORBID.

That's what "Crossing Jordan" is like. The elements are there for a dandy TV show but they're jumbled up. Jill Hennessy, who spent most of her time on "Law and Order" looking like an ex-nun in a power suit, now gets to walk around in a hot babe wardrobe with a slightly mad glint in her eye. She's Dr. Jordan Cavannaugh, the medical examiner who has been obsessed with solving crimes ever since the unsolved murder of her mother long ago. Ken Howard plays the dad she comes home to, an ex-cop who has, at long last, acquired a new girlfriend.

Best of all on the show, Miguel Ferrer -- the son of Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney and a first-rate character actor -- plays her boss, a man who is mysteriously and somewhat comically at the end of his tether.

In one wild, wonderful scene that may demonstrate what this show is capable of, he talked to himself in the mirror through a sock puppet. He was practicing a speech he'd give at a local college about the wonderful world of medical examination. Through the sock puppet, he told the phantom class of students the requirements for being a good coroner. You have to, for instance, be a "people person."

The show has potential. The first episode was a clumsy, lurching dramatic mess but if they can ever figure out how to get the elements properly aligned into a style, it will be very good.

Already terrific is "The Education of Max Bickford" from the writers of one of the better hometown shows, "Judging Amy" and starring Richard Dreyfuss as a college professor who loses a big, fat, honorary academic chair to an old student and former bedmate (played by Marcia Gay Harden). Every now and then -- "The West Wing" was the last time -- a show comes along that is so good that I seriously wonder whether network TV deserves it.

I suspected "The Education of Max Bickford" was there from the opening seconds when I heard, in the background music, the familiar tom-tom thump of drummer Max Roach give way to Sonny Rollins' calypso celebration in Rollins' most famous tune "St. Thomas." Any show hip enough to show its hero walking across campus accompanied by Sonny Rollins already has style to burn.

The show didn't disappoint. It isn't just smart, it isn't afraid to be smart in public. Nor does it think "warm" and "smart" are antonyms. An unqualified winner, this one.

A qualified winner, the way I look it, is a show being near-universally scored a loser, "Wolf Lake," a nutso small town werewolf number that's part "X-Files," part "Twin Peaks" but, all in all, genuinely different from the general run of TV drama these days.

Maybe what I like about it most is that Big Town Cop Lou Diamond Phillips searches for his missing girlfriend in a small town and finds, instead of providence and heart-warming bowling alleys, a town full of young werewolves whose eyes glow in the dark and whose hearts might even give Buffy a chill.

On the other hand, I'm not going to try to get used to it, mind you. It's going to be opposite "Law and Order" and "NYPD Blue."

It might have had an easier time of it against real werewolves.