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

Conveniently located between Friends and Frasier, this new sitcom needn't be great to be successful. Lucky thing. Christina Applegate, who spent 11 years as sexy airhead Kelly Bundy on Married...with Children, here plays the more rounded part of Jesse Warner, a pretty, reasonably intelligent woman in her 20s. Her only obvious flaw is a preoccupation with her marital and parental status. First she told her handsome new neighbor (Bruno Campos) that she couldn't go out with him because she was too busy being a single mother. When she finally did date him, she couldn't help blabbing about her 10-year-old son (Eric Lloyd). Predictably, the guy was turned off. Jesse desperately needs to relax; otherwise, she's normal—so normal that the supporting cast must bear much of the comedy load. And therein lies a problem. Jesse's father (George Dzundza) is less a character than a bundle of prejudices. Her older brother (John Lehr) refuses to speak for no good reason. How often can he answer the phone with silence and expect us to laugh? Her ne'er-do-well younger sibling (David DeLuise) had better be full of funny schemes.

Bottom Line: Call this middling sitcom Unmarried...with Child

ABC (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET)

This new sitcom created by Susan Harris (Soap, The Golden Girls) walks a fine line between funny and annoying. In the episodes we've seen, humor just barely prevails. Three divorced males in their 30s hang out, play golf and kvetch. Michael (Peter Gallagher) is fairly likable, if a bit obtuse. Andy (Mitch Rouse) is goofy and phobic. Phil (Bradley Whitford) is sour and relentlessly negative. You wouldn't want him for a friend, but you can't ignore his corrosive wit. Some viewers will dig the rhythm of the constant banter; others will react with a simple "Shuddup!" Put us in the first group—tentatively.

Bottom Line: Tune in if guy talk grabs you

PBS (Mon.-Thurs., Oct. 19-22, 8 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

"In 1793, Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State and the owner of over 130 human beings," says narrator Angela Bassett early in Part 3 of this compelling six-hour documentary. For viewers who can't bring themselves to think of the Sage of Monticello as a slaveholder, Africans in America provides a needed course in remedial history. But it's more than the story of American slavery. The program looks at America, from the early 1600s to the Civil War, through the eyes of the country's slaves. It juxtaposes the brutality of bondage with the prodigious growth of a nation whose economy was powered in part by unfree labor. It measures the meaningfulness of America's egalitarian ideals by the country's response to the slaves who struggled to throw off the yoke and the abolitionists who fought to end the owning of black human beings. "Who better to define freedom than a slave?" asks black writer John Edgar Wideman in Part 4. "Our sense of freedom was...like a fire inside of us." Africans in America burns with it.

Bottom Line: A vital, valuable documentary

NBC (Sun., Oct. 18, 8 p.m. ET; Mon., Oct. 19, 9 p.m. ET)

Employing textbook counterprogramming strategy against a Sunday World Series game on FOX and ABC's Monday Night Football, NBC is fielding this five-hour mini-series about six generations of a female-dominated family. Boy, they must think women viewers prefer any junk to jocks.

Some would consider Caroline in the City star Lea Thompson fortunate to look younger than her 37 years. But her girlish appearance gradually works against her in this drama, which requires her to simulate aging from 17 to 88. It doesn't help that Thompson's character, the socially conscious photo journalist at the center of the story, lacks credibility from the first snap of her shutter. She's at her most bogus in the France of World War I (voice-over: "I was an eyewitness to man's inhumanity to man"), where she comes upon a destroyed church and observes, "I guess nothing's sacred anymore." The Great War brings more disillusionment when Thompson learns that the dashing photographer (Dharma & Greg's Thomas Gibson) who got her pregnant is married to another. And the relationship gets no easier two decades later. "It hurts so much. Why does it still hurt?" the weepy Thompson asks a friend. "Because it's love," the woman replies. "Love hurts." Ouch.

Bottom Line: Summon the will to change the channel

UPN (Mondays, 9 p.m. ET)

We must label this new show "controversial" because African-American groups have condemned it for using the slavery era as sitcom fodder. But controversial does not imply thought-provoking. Desmond Pfeiffer is unabashedly dumb, farcical, tasteless and sophomoric (fresh-manic, in fact). The title character (Chi McBride), a black nobleman booted out of England along with his numskull manservant (Max Baker), becomes the butler-confidant of President Abraham Lincoln (Dann Florek), portrayed as having a clearly Clintonian obsession with sex. Need we add that Mary Todd Lincoln (Christine Estabrook) is a nutcase and Ulysses S. Grant (Kelly Connell) is a stumbling lush? Mel Brooks in his prime might have turned this concept into deliciously low comedy, but the laughs here are greatly outnumbered by groans.

Bottom Line: Another White House mess

>Sunday. Oct. 18 THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME ABC (7 p.m. ET) Dingdong. Quasimodo cavorts in the network premiere of Disney's 1996 animated musical.

Monday, Oct. 19 ALLY MCBEAL FOX (9 p.m. ET) This one features the premiere of singer Vonda Shepard's "Maryland" video. Who knows? There may be lawyer stuff, too.

Tuesday, Oct. 20 NYPD BLUE ABC (10 p.m. ET) The sixth season begins; so does the countdown to Jimmy Smits's departure.

Wednesday, Oct. 21 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN NBC (9 p.m. ET) He's off his beanie. Dick starts crazily collecting little stuffed animals.

Thursday, Oct. 22 U.S. PRO FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS ABC (9 p.m. ET) Not even winter and they're already ice bound.

Friday, Oct. 23 NASH BRIDGES CBS (10 p.m. ET) Bored with Don Johnson? Yasmine Bleeth, late of Baywatch, adds some pep to the regular cast.

Saturday, Oct. 24 EVE'S BAYOU HBO (8 p.m. ET) Samuel L. Jackson stars as a philandering physician in the cable premiere of this haunting 1997 drama.

>Faith Ford

"There I am with all the eyeshadow and the Farrah hair," says Faith Ford, describing one of the high school photos she has plastered on the set of her new CBS sitcom Maggie Winters (Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m. ET). Since she began playing the show's title character, who was once voted Most Likely to Succeed and now is forced back to her hometown after being dumped by her husband, Ford, 34, has been drawing on her high school experience—she was voted Most Spirited—to play Maggie. But after her decade-long run on Murphy Brown and with a happy marriage to personal trainer Campion Murphy, 35, the similarities to luckless Maggie end right there. Indeed, she was offered the Winters part on the day that Murphy wrapped. "It would've been easy to do a small movie role," she says, "but I wanted more to do."

Now shooting 12 hours a day, Ford has met that challenge and still finds time to reminisce about high school and the day she discovered her comic chops as a student. "This guy whistled at me," she recalls. "I felt something around my ankles. It was my skirt. So I just kept walking with that I-meant-for-that-to-happen attitude."

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff.