WITH SO MANY SHOWS BEING INTRODUCED this month, it might be a good time to explain the new criterion I am applying to series. I got the idea, like I get most of my ideas nowadays, from watching the O.J. trial. When Johnnie Cochran cross-examined LAPD officer Robert Riske, he asked him to identify another policeman from an obscure photo that showed little more than a beefy arm. To prod Riske's memory Cochran asked if any of the cops at the crime scene were "particularly 'buff,' " as in especially muscular. That phrase so captured me that I have added it to the checklist of qualities I use to measure every show. (You'll see how this works as you read on.) Most shows would not be affected by this sinewy new standard. Clearly, though, the stock of programs like Baywatch and American Gladiators has just soared, while Roseanne's has plummeted.

NBC (Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. ET)

B

Two residents of a Pittsburgh apartment building meet in the laundry room. The underpowered dryer is about all they have in common. Cynthia Stevenson (Bob) is a queer dear, a flustered timid type trying hard to act outgoing. This florid wallflower is recently separated from a flagrantly cheating husband. Across the hall is a saucy and assertive woman (Jessica Lundy), a hairdresser raising a young son. That means her crass ex-husband (Enrico Colantoni) is around all the time. He comes right out of the Lenny-Squiggy mold.

The sitcom's requisite second setting is a TV station. Stevenson, you see, is the associate producer for a low-budget local talk show hosted by Dennis Dupree (Alan Thicke), an empty suit with a deep voice and an even deeper sense of his own splendor. A great role for Growing Pains' Thicke, Dupree reminds me of a cross between Mary Tyler Moore's Ted Baxter and Rich, Rob Schneider's insufferable copy-room boor from Saturday Night Live. The sitcom also provides an ideal vehicle for Stevenson's squeamish, squinty space-cadet persona.

Smartly conceived and lively, the show exhibits a healthy sense of the absurd. With snappier punch lines, it could be a contender. No buff factor.

Fox (Fridays, 8 p.m. ET)

B

Ashy computer hacker (Lori Singer) discovers that if she drops her phone into her modem cradle while she is wearing her virtual-reality game gear (goggles and gloves), it will plunge her and whoever is on the line into a lurid alternate universe, one with aspects of cyberspace, the subconscious and Tom Petty videos.

Soon Singer is working reluctantly for a mysterious, perhaps sinister organization called the Committee. At the same time, she is trying to uncover the events that lead to the death of her father (David McCallum), a virtual-reality pioneer, and the devastating suicide attempt of her mother (Louise Fletcher).

Trading on a paranoid, conspiratorial tone that recalls The Prisoner and MTV's Dead at 21, the show is jumbled but jazzy. It does serve as a compatible lead-in, however, for that paragon of the paranormal, The X-Files.

Singer, I am happy to report, is particularly buff.

CBS (Saturdays, 9 p.m. ET)

C

Valerie Harper (Rhoda) returns to the sitcom universe as the lifeguard in the secretarial pool. Harper is the peacemaker between the ladies who type (Debra Jo Rupp, Andrea Abbate and Kristin (Datillo-Hayward) and the executive ranks (Dakin Matthews, Kevin Conroy and Lisa Darr).

The cast is quite good. (Rupp, in particular, is impressive as a harried working mom.) But seeing them negotiate this dull, overdone material is like watching a skilled jeweler work with loofah mitts. When all else fails (and it often does), the scripts resort to crudeness. For example, one episode is built around Rupp's describing, in breathless romance-novel style, her lunchtime assignation with her hard-hat husband. Seems they made love in a drafty shack on a construction site. Getting the picture? This false farce is a flat takeoff of that Lucky Vanous Diet Coke commercial. If only it had Lucky. Now, there's a guy who has manufactured an entire career out of simply being buff.

Family Channel (Sun., March 12, 7 p.m. ET)

A-

Judge Reinhold plays a successful pop therapist, author of Feel Your Feelings and Feel Your Feelings Again. But his sun-kissed Malibu lifestyle is eclipsed when his former wife dies in a car accident and his estranged 10-year-old daughter (Stephi Lineburg) comes to live with him. Rocky times ensue, even though the girl is aided by a guardian angel (Carol Kane) with a very tacky fashion sense.

Alan King costars in this cute and crafty light comedy, as polished a piece of kiddie cinema as you will see in any movie theater.

Fox (Mondays, 9 p.m. ET)

C+

This drama series follows a batch of first-year residents on their appointed rounds at a Seattle hospital. These people (Jensen Daggett, Harold Pruett, Darryl Fong, Terri Ivens, Donal Logue and Kai Soremekun) are obviously medical tyros. They're far too agonizingly humane and vulnerable to be real doctors.

The show borrows a little from everyone, mushing together the code-red intensity of ER with the idiosyncratic humor and heated ethical debates of Chicago Hope as well as the young lust of the syndicated University Hospital. One female resident purrs to another, "Now there's a man I would definitely swap sputum samples with." Because this is Fox, the scripts throw in gags about erections and revealing hospital gowns.

Unfortunately the tepid hodgepodge that results from all these influences is far less than the sum of its borrowings. Providing the show's musk is Vincent Ventresca as a resident supervisor constantly sweeping his long, lank locks out of his eyes. He's a little on the scrawny side to be considered truly buff.

>TUBE: Fox tosses another medical series into the fray with Medicine Ball: Lori Singer throws her virtual self into a technoconfusing world in VR.5

SCREEN: Hideaway is a tale from the cryptic; The Walking Dead staggers as a tribute to black Vietnam grunts; A Great Day in Harlem is a gorgeous portrait of jazz immortals

SONG: Dave Stewart sends his Greetings from the Gutter; Simple Minds offer only simple tunes; John Lee Hooker Chills Out in style

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>AS IF YOU DON'T HAVE ENOUGH TO worry about with tax time creeping up. In an NBC movie based on actual events, In the Line of Duty: Kidnapped (Sun., March 12, 9 p.m. ET), Dabney Coleman plays an epicurean IRS executive who uses confidential tax records to single out families who would make ideal kidnap victims. (Suddenly that audit doesn't sound half bad.)