TV is notoriously weak at imitating life, but it's brilliant at imitating TV. During the most recent February sweeps period, NBC aired Witness to the Execution, a flawed but intriguing movie about a death-row inmate meeting his end live on pay-per-view. Well, last week Phil Donahue waged a futile legal battle for the right to televise, on tape delay, the execution by ingestion of cyanide gas of convicted North Carolina killer David Lawson.

As a nation of TV viewers we are so inundated with images of violence that it becomes difficult to know where to draw the line. Surely this is the place to start. Yes, executions are dramatized on TV all the time (most gruelingly in last year's ABC miniseries Murder in the Heartland). But to broadcast the actual death of a human being would set a terrible precedent, one that would be quickly exploited and imitated by the sleaziest elements in the medium. Are you ready for Snuff TV? Donahue, who opposes the death penalty, argued unsuccessfully that the public has the right to see this mortal ceremony. That may be so—but do we have the need?

MTV (Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET)


It's the third go-round for MTV's melting-pot concept, which throws together a group of young strangers into a communal setting and films the results. So we gel seven new faces in a new city (San Francisco). But we get the same old tricks.

It's clear by now that the one thing the creators of this show demand of their subjects is sparks—preferably romantic, but failing that, antagonistic. In the last arc the roommates were fighting before the bags were unpacked. This crowd may not be so accommodating. Sure, the gloves start coming off over the hygiene habits of Puck, the rowdy anarchic bike messenger in their midst. But even here, they all agree. This septet just has more highly evolved communication skills. They have a problem? They sit down and talk about it. BOR-ING!!! Or maybe the novelty has just worn off this experiment. Whatever.

CBS (Fri., June 24, 8 p.m. ET)


In this sketchy silver-haired saga, three retired San Diego lawmen (Dennis Weaver, Robert Guillaume and Pat Morita) and a career con man (James Coburn)—hey, it takes all kinds—band together to hunt down some bad guys.

This failed pilot has some fun gauging the length of its protagonists' teeth. Coburn refers to Weaver and Guillaume as "the Poli-Grip twins."

The script is flimsy and formulaic, but these four frisky old dogs almost manage to make this trite material seem like new tricks.

Fox (Mon., June 27, 8 p.m. ET)


This scrambled cop ensemble show, starring John Wesley Shipp, seems to have been made in a time warp. The language, the plot, the music, the clothes, the characters, even the cars are all very '70s.

By any chance have you seen the Beastie Boys' latest music video, "Sabotage"? It's a slam-bang spoof of all those bad cop shows from the Starsky and Hutch era. Well, Green Dolphin Beat is like "Sabotage"...with really stupid dialogue.

>THE BIG PICTURES SUNDAY NIGHT (JUNE 26) BRINGS A battle of the movie titans. NBC presents El Cid (7 p.m. ET), the recently refurbished 1961 epic that stars Charlton Heston as an 11th-century Spanish nobleman who fought against the Moors. (By the by, the name of Heston's hero would translate into modern vernacular as The Donald.) Then comes Gettysburg (8 p.m. ET) on TNT. The lavish re-creation of the pivotal Civil War battle stars Martin Sheen (as Robert E. Lee) and the proverbial cast of thousands, including Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, Sam Elliott and, in his last movie, the late Richard Jordan. The film, which concludes the following night at the same time, never captures the fierce lyricism of the novel on which it is based: Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels. But like so many of the men in Pickett's Charge, it dies trying.

>HATS OFF TO LARRY AS YOU MAY RECALL, THE LARRY SANDRES Show ended last year with Larry (Garry Shandling) fleeing the hurly-burly of Los Angeles for a quiescent cabin in Montana. Well, the unlikeliest of Nature Boys is back and so is TV's most subversive, self-referential comedy (HBO, Wednesdays, 10:30 p.m. ET). In fact the third season opens with a marvelously sharp and cynical episode that has Larry scrambling to explain why he went AWOL from the Talk Show Wars.