ONE OF TV'S MOST INTRIGUING DRAMAS doesn't have a weekly time slot. Call it A Tale of Two Sports. As Houston and Orlando compete in the NBA finals this week, basketball is concluding a banner year. NBC's play-off ratings through the conference championships were the highest they have been in 18 years. TBS and TNT, which covered 45 games in the earlier rounds, saw their ratings rise a whopping 33 percent over last year. Meanwhile, baseball is striking out, as indicated by ESPN's early season ratings, which have dropped 32 percent from last year.

Basketball has benefited from a plethora of interesting stories: the return of Michael Jordan, the ascendance of those young upstarts in Orlando, Indiana's cardiac finishes, the Rocky Horror Show that is Dennis Rodman. Baseball, of course, shot itself in the cleats with that protracted, senseless strike, which alienated and angered fans.

The difference is also one of image. The NBA has carefully tutored its players in the importance of maintaining a cordial, accommodating stance with the media, particularly TV. Too many baseball stars of all ages (from Eddie Murray to Roger Clemens to Barry Bonds) are uncooperative or surly. That's not only bad public relations, it also hurts the bottom line. Consider, for instance, how many more basketball stars are featured in high-profile ad campaigns. All in all, it's easy to understand why basketball is soaring while baseball slumps.

TNN (Wed., June 14, 8 p.m. ET)


Lights strobe, smoke billows, muscular male dancers frisk about, a shining chamber descends from the ceiling—and out pops Barbara, the only Mandrell sister you'll ever need.

This flashy concert special owes more to Ann-Margret in Vegas than to Tammy Wynette at the state fair. Along with the hectic choreography and costume changes, Mandrell growls the blues, plays "Tequila" on the sax, "Tel-star" on the pedal steel guitar and launches more rapid-fire song medleys than you can shake a whittlin' stick at. The crowd at the Grand Ole Opry applaud politely, but they look a little dazed.

A show of this caliber usually involves a two-drink minimum. And you may need a few stiff ones when Mandrell dons sunglasses and performs a rap version of "You Are My Sunshine."

Fox (Sundays, 9:30 p.m. ET)


Lisa Ann Walter stars as a woman trying to keep the spice in her marriage after eight years and two kids, while working in an ill-defined job at a recording studio, the Mound of Sound.

Walter has a saucy presence and does a mean Janis Joplin imitation. But the show goes to outrageous lengths for a punch line. At one point Walter's hubby asks, "You don't like mustard on your sandwiches?" "I don't like mustard in my house, " she responds. "When I play Clue, I don't even like to be Colonel Mustard." If the audience has to travel that far, it deserves frequent-flier miles.

>TUBE: Basketball slam-dunks while baseball balks; Barbara Mandrell pours on the glitz; a working mom juggles roles in Fox's My Wildest Dreams

SCREEN: Pocahontas—without reservations; Parker Posey is the life of Party Girl; Harvey Keitel huffs and puffs, but Smoke lacks substance; The Glass Shield is an arresting tale 21

SONG: Soul Asylum takes refuge in sad songs; Björk is back; All-4-One is blinded by love; Pavement's newest release could be smoother 24

PAGES: Photographer Lynn Goldsmith mixes personal with professional; a besotted new dad chronicles his daughter's babyhood; James Finn Garner spins more PC tales 29


WHEN IT WAS ANNOUNCED LAST YEAR THAT JIMMY SMITS was replacing David Caruso on NYPD Blue, some people (like me) indignantly wailed that it would ruin the show. But the transition has turned out to be smooth. Now that each actor has had a season as the precinct's primary detective, it's time to assess their merits in the crucial categories.

PARTNER: A major qualification is getting along with Sipowicz. Caruso's bond was based on an implicit code of honor and respect. Smits, on the other hand, has developed a genuine friendship with Andy, a relationship sealed with a squad car singalong of "Duke of Earl." Edge: Even.

LOVER: Caruso's love scenes, particularly those with Amy Brenneman, were incandescent. But Smits is the most soulful and romantic leading man in prime time. Edge: Smits.

INTERROGATOR: If NYPD Blue and Homicide have taught us anything, it is that a detective's job is to convince a suspect that he doesn't need a lawyer and then browbeat a confession out of him. Caruso handled this con game better. Smits's manipulations always seem transparent. Edge: Caruso.

INTANGIBLES: Smits brings a warmer, more vulnerable element to the show; Caruso had a fiery intensity. As for character, remember how Smits's Bobby Simone persuaded that kooky murder witness (Susanna Thompson) that they could be lovers once she had testified? Caruso's John Kelly would have found that behavior unthinkable. Edge: Caruso.