MANY ARE THE DELIGHTS TO BE HAD from watching Fox's Melrose Place, a show so outlandishly silly it can leave a viewer balmy, but chief among them is Andrew Shue's sweetly blank nonperformance as Billy Campbell.

Handsome in an equine way, Shue since 1992 has been the nice guy in the midst of endless plot machinations at that tiny but busy apartment complex. At first, his role consisted largely of reaction shots as well as shirtless situps that showed off his torso. His basic expression was one of shock or puzzlement, which he registered in both cases by tugging his mouth to the side and undulating an eyebrow.

This past year, though, Shue was tossed exciting new acting challenges, and he has fumbled each one endearingly. When Billy's evil wife, Brooke (Kristin Davis), weepingly revealed she had suffered a miscarriage, Shue hugged her and rolled his eyes heavenward, the way virtuous women do in old religious prints. But there was no hurt or sorrow in those milk-chocolate orbs. Shue seemed to be observing the arc of an unusually slow fly.

Lately, for reasons that I find psychologically obscure, Billy has decided he wants to be as ruthless as Brooke (who finally perished in a pool accident). Suddenly desperate to become top dog at the ad agency where he works as an account executive under Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear), he sleeps with a rival to learn the details of her new campaign. And how he torments his colleague and ex-lover Alison Parker (Courtney Thorne-Smith)! He cruelly waves a champagne bottle under her nose (she's in recovery) and tries to make her mud-wrestle (to satisfy a kinky client's request). We are meant to see, however, that Billy really doesn't want to be bad. Alone in his room, he sadly lets the bubbly dribble onto the carpet. The toppled bottle is more expressive than Shue.

Of course, there is always room for a nonperformance on Melrose—a show comprised of a wild mix of acting styles. Locklear fires off all her lines with a fierce, metronomic flatness. As scheming but dim Sydney, Laura Leighton is a shower of madcap sparks. And masque-faced Marcia Cross, who plays Kimberly Shaw, insane psychiatrist—in her latest breakdown, she compulsively bought Tupperware—does all her acting with flickers of panic in her eyes.

This is where Shue comes in. They also serve who just do situps. If you didn't have a dead spot between the movements of a symphony, how would you know it was a symphony?

CBS (Fridays, 10 p.m. ET)

B-

Don Johnson, whom I still associate with the white loafers and pastel jackets of his Miami Vice days, returns to series TV as a slightly grizzled police inspector in San Francisco. This hour-long show puts the city's locations to stylish use, and the first episode careens along with slam-bang action, but the whole concept feels-closer to slapdash.

TNT (Sun., April 7, 8 p.m. ET)

B+

In Ben Kingsley's capable hands, the biblical leader becomes very querulous, sad, unsure of everything but his faith. Similarly, Frank Langella's Mernefta, son of Ramses, doesn't slink about with the usual posturing glamor of movie pharaohs. He's merely a paper tiger, one of the Old Testament's big losers. Anyone more interested in Cecil B. De Mille effects than good acting will be disappointed in this two-part movie. The parting of the Red Sea looks like an elaborate display of lawn sprinklers.

A & E (Sun., April 7, 8 p.m. ET)

B

Watching this two-hour parade of musical highlights, you almost forget what a chore it can be sitting through the non-singing scenes of Carousel, South Pacific and other film versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classics. Here, the melodies are transportingly lyrical, the production values Technicolor lush.

CBS (Sun., April 7, 9 p.m. ET)

B-

This is not so much a sequel as an American remake of the enduringly popular 1967 movie. Sidney Poitier, 69, is still teaching tough kids, only in Chicago now instead of London. It's hard to fault Poitier, as gracefully understated as ever, but his character is too predictable. Staunch as a lighthouse, he shines out with moral perfection wherever he turns. (Note to Lulu fans: That Scottish chickadee turns up at the start, does a quick reprise of the famous theme, and exits.)

>The 'A' Word

TALES FROM THE BACKSIDE

HELEN HUNT HANGS UP THE PHONE IN Mad About You and says, "MBA, my ass!" On The John Larroquette Show, someone says, "He's ass-backwards." And in the TV movie Marked for Murder, "a—h—e" is uttered three times. Lately, the "A" word could be heard on Murder One, The Single Guy and 3rd Rock from the Sun. Something's going on, no butts about it.

The word "ass" probably arrived in prime time in 1973, when, on The Odd Couple, Tony Randall pointed to the word "assume" and told a courtroom: "When you 'assume,' you make an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me.' " In 1994 "ass"—referring to either the buttocks or the beast of burden—was used 28 times on prime time, according to a Southern Illinois University-Carbondale study on TV obscenity.

This, though, is the Season of the Full Moon. On the debut of Fox's The Show, "ass" was dropped twice; NBC's Friends had a "scary-ass clown" reference; and on Seinfeld, Kramer's license plate once spelled out ASS MAN. Meanwhile, David Letterman gives out Big Ass Hams and also celebrates a Canadian gas man named Dick Assman.

What has happened is no mystery: A once-verboten word has gained the approval of the censors, and writers are working the word hard for verisimilitude or easy laughs. "Dickens used it," says The Simpsons' Matt Groening. Perhaps, but not on every page. There apparently has been no outpouring of complaints. Still, as usual, the collective imagination of the television industry seems to be in arrears.

  • Contributors:
  • Paula Yoo.