Thank goodness the presidential candidates finally got around to debating. Up until now, this has been a surreal campaign, in large part because of a novel utilization of television. Bypassing the usual news outlets whenever possible, Bush, Clinton and Perot have basked in the cozier settings of MTV, Arsenio, TNN's Nashville Now, Larry King Live, Donahue, breakfast nooks like Good Morning America and soft-focus newsmagazines like Dateline and 20/20. It's a chatty, feel-good campaign calculated to disarm a restive, fed-up electorate. Who wants to cross swords with Sam Donaldson when you can shoot the breeze with Ralph Emery? But why do I gel the feeling that come November, no matter who is elected, all this eager intimacy will abruptly end and once again we'll only see the President waving as he boards a helicopter?

NBC (Wednesdays, 9:30 P.M. ET)

B+

Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt play Manhattan apartment dwellers adjusting to married life in this sitcom in which nothing much happens. She drags him out to shop for furniture; they spend a Sunday debating what to do and never make" it to the lobby. In its banal plots the show is a lot like Seinfeld, which it follows, making a nice matched set for NBC. In fact, Reiser's funny New York City fusspot could be a cross between the Jerry and George characters on Seinfeld.

The newlyweds come with a self-absorbed circle of friends: a dim married couple (Richard Kind and Leila Kenzie), Reiser's slobby pal (Tommy Hinkley) and Hunt's sister (Ann Ramsay), who is given to panic attacks.

The scope is a little cramped but the writing is wonderfully droll. Gazing out the window at a gay-pride parade going by on the street below, Reiser calls out, "Oh, honey, come here. You're going to miss the Judy Garland balloon."

The Disney Channel (Sun., Oct. 18, 8:30 P.M. ET)

B

This is the television premiere of the black-and-white short that visionary director Tim Burton (Batman) made back in 1984, at a time when he was employed as an animator for Disney. Daniel Stern, Shelley Duvall and Joseph Maher appear in this silly live-action spoof of Boris Karloff's classic Frankenstein films, in which a boy (Barret Oliver) brings his dog, Sparky, back from the dead.

For a director working on a modest budget, Burton showed real control of his craft. The film is marked by the same strikingly macabre set design and sardonic view of American domesticity that informed Burton's later work, such as Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.

NBC (Sun., Oct. 18, 8 P.M. ET)

C+

In a now familiar strategy, NBC rolls out another mammoth melodrama to compete with a major sporting event, the World Series on CBS.

This lavish five-hour miniseries, which concludes Tuesday night, tells the story of a wealthy young heiress (Annette O'Toole) in the '30s. Rebounding from a miserable marriage, she travels to Europe and falls in love with and weds a dashing British duke (Anthony Andrews), who installs her in a sumptuous French ch√Ęteau. Decades slide by, the war intrudes, children are born and grow up as Mama becomes an international jewel dealer.

This unrelievedly trite saga is stylish looking. But it would make for tedious viewing were it not for the exquisitely urbane Andrews. Unfortunately, he is only a sporadic presence. And Jewels loses what luster it possesses as soon as he is gone.

Syndicated (Check local listings)

C+

Professional hunk Lorenzo Lamas (Falcon Crest) plays Reno Raines, a good cop framed for murder by some corrupt colleagues. Now he prowls the country on a motorcycle, working as a bounty hunter while being pursued himself. Lending support in a high-tech RV are Lamas's Native American boss, Bobby Six Killer (Branscombe Richmond) and the boss' bustier-wearing stepsister (Lamas's wife, Kathleen Kinmont).

Lamas looks the part with his shoulder-length hair, wraparound shades, five-day stubble and low-slung chopper. But his spectacularly wooden performance helps make this action hour from producer Stephen J. Cannell one of the worst-acted series in recent years. At least Richmond seems to be having fun. But after a career as a B-movie thug, which required him to do nothing more than grunt and curse, he's probably delighted just to be speaking in complete sentences.

The action is lax and the direction sloppy. Cool concept and great look, though.

ABC (Tuesdays, 8:30 P.M. ET)

B-

This sitcom features comedian Mark Curry (It's Showtime at the Apollo), Holly Robinson (21 Jump Street) and Dawnn Lewis (A Different World) as housemates in Oakland.

When the focus is on the trio's fractious home life, the show is lively enough to overcome its formulaic nature. But Curry also plays a substitute teacher, which means he's often surrounded by precocious little smart alecks. (It's a mystery why sitcoms keep using classroom concepts. With such rare exceptions as Welcome Back, Kotter, the premise always makes for dismally cloying comedy.)

When they get Curry away from the blackboard, his relaxed, rubbery verve makes him the season's best comic find.

>CASTAWAYS AND INCORRIGIBLES

ON FRIDAY (OCT. 16, 8 P.M. ET) TBS PRESENTS the never-before-seen pilot from one of the '60s' most popular and curiously enduring sitcoms, Gilligan's Island. The crucial castaways were in place when this was shot in 1964: the hapless Gilligan (Bob Denver), the blustery Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.), lock-jawed millionaire Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus) and his wife, Lovey (Natalie Schafer). CBS used a different episode when the show premiered that September.

And while we're looking back, John Byner introduces a noon matinee of the Bowery Boys every Sunday on A & E. The leader of these risible ruffians was Leo Gorcey as the scrappy, malaprop-spouting "Slip" Mahoney. Huntz Hall played his goofy sidekick, Sach Jones, and Gorcey's father, Bernard, was the apoplectic Louie. These quickie comedies have held up remarkably well since they were made in the '40s and '50s. Watching today, you can clearly see that big-in-France movie star Mickey Rourke patterned his acting style, his accent and all his smug facial expressions on Leo Gorcey. As Slip might say, "It's inconfutable."