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Three series lack staying power

It turns out there was good reason for ABC to delay the birth of its new comedy, "Notes from the Underbelly." And you certainly can understand why Fox decided to keep its new drama, "Drive," off the main scheduling road until near season's end.

The last two scripted series of the network regular season are hardly inspiring.

First up, the dreary comedy, "Underbelly." It premieres at 10 tonight on WKBW-TV and is as unoriginal as all of those strained ABC promos that have run for weeks.

Peter Cambor and Jennifer Westfeldt star as a thirtysomething couple, Andrew and Lauren, whose world changes after deciding to have a baby. What a shocker.

The decision is made after they prepare a list of pros and cons and just as their friends, the optimistic Julie (Melanie Paxson) and Eric (Sunkrish Bala), are about to have their first child. Julie and Eric see the pros of parenthood.

But their view is more than balanced by Lauren's acerbic friend, Cooper (Rachael Harris), a divorce attorney who sees all the cons. Andrew's friend, Danny (Michael Weaver), also is there for childish comic relief.

Narrated far too preciously by Andrew, "Underbelly" has every baby cliche in the book during the first three episodes -- including the nervous soon-to-be father; the soon-to-be mother who fears losing her body and considers quitting her job; the fear of parental bankruptcy and also of having a pregnant woman's water break at the worst possible time.

The cons so far outweigh the pros in this series that it's a wonder it ever got on the air. ABC sure gave enough hints about how it feels about the show. After bouncing it from the fall schedule, it moved it to 10 p.m. Thursdays on the night that NBC is returning "ER" to the schedule with original episodes. It runs two episodes tonight of "Underbelly," a clear indication that it is burning it off in an attempt to recoup its investment. Eventually, it moves to Wednesday, the graveyard of ABC sitcoms.

"Drive," the new Fox series that premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on WUTV, also opens with back-to-back episodes of the series created by Tim Minear ("Angel," "Wonderfalls"). It moves to 8 p.m. Mondays, where "Prison Break" recently ended its series run.

Minear's credits drive expectations for the convoluted "Drive," which at least gets out of low gear in the second hour. Nathan Fillion ("Firefly") stars as Alex Tully, who is forced into entering an illegal, underground cross-country race with two prizes: $32 million and the chance to find his missing wife. He is getting help from a mysterious beauty, Corinna Wiles (Kristin Lehman), whose motivations become clearer in the second hour of the race.

The competition includes Wendy Patrakas (Melanie Lynskey), a new mother fleeing her husband for unspecified reasons; John Trimble (Dylan Baker), a geeky scientist who is trying to impress his rebellious teenage daughter, Violet (Emma Stone); and Winston Salazar (Kevin Alejandro), a criminal who is bonding with his half-brother, Sean (J.D. Pardo), over the common dislike of their powerful father.

Charles Martin Smith also stars as Mr. Bright, "The Race" liaison who parcels out details at a frustrating pace.

The pilot is loaded with chases and almost as many demolitions as a NASCAR race. When it slows down to try and deal with the relationships and back stories, it is more difficult to handle.

It isn't easy to root for anybody, which threatens its long-term prospects. Even if it doesn't quickly crash and burn and Fox keeps running the entire 13 episodes, the race won't be finished until next season.

Of course, timing can be everything when it comes to the debut of a new series. The new Sci-Fi Channel series "Painkiller Jane," airing at 10 p.m. Friday, has the misfortune of premiering months after "Heroes," a hugely popular NBC series.

Based on a comic book and in development for years before "Heroes" captured the nation's imagination, "Painkiller Jane" stars Kristanna Loken ("Terminator III") as Jane Vasko, a former DEA agent with self-healing powers similar to those of the cheerleader in "Heroes."

Vasko, who can feel pain, is recruited to join a government agent who is searching for "neuros" that have superhuman neurological powers that enable them to do very bad things.

Loken is a big physical woman whose character displays a dry wit in repartee with her boss and co-workers. But you don't have to be a neurological expert to understand that this low-budget attempt to clone "Heroes" fails to be as interesting, intense and smart as NBC's hit and spends too much developing Jane's character at the expense of everyone else in the show.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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>Television Premieres

Notes from the Underbelly

Rating: One star (out of four)

10 p.m. tonight on WKBW-TV

Drive

Rating: Two stars (out of four)

8 p.m. Sunday on Fox

Painkiller Jane

Rating: Two stars (out of four)

10 p.m. Friday on Sci-Fi

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