AMERICANS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN OF TWO minds about jokes in poor taste. On the one hand, we profess to be horrified by the exploits of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer; on the other hand, we are neither surprised nor outraged when our coworkers, bartenders and talk show hosts transform hideous crimes into rich comic material.

Certain subjects—the Holocaust, AIDS, the death of small children—still seem to be considered off-limits as comic fodder, but apart from that, just about anything goes. As was evident throughout the O.J. Simpson trial, this sublimation of unspeakable tragedy into a national yuckfest seems to have a therapeutic effect on the public. And now The Tonight Show's Dancing Itos have been replaced by Dancing Unabombers. Perhaps such bits are a subconscious way of defanging terrifying figures, making them seem pathetic or, worse, uncool. Or maybe some folks just need ratings.

Since bad-taste humor on TV is here to stay, the only question is: Is there anyone who, on the subject of the Unabomber, has consistently risen above the sophomoric—whose jokes have something more than shock value? The answer is David Letterman. Having generally steered clear of O.J. cracks, while Jay Leno worked the trial relentlessly for a larger audience share, Letterman is now thriving off the Unabomber. Though Leno, Conan O'Brien and Bill Maher of Politically Incorrect have all launched a number of inspired barbs at the eminently vulnerable Ted Kaczynski, Letterman's monologues have outclassed them all.

One night, Letterman reported that Kato Kaelin had called the Unabomber to see if he could camp out in his cabin for a couple of months. Another night, he asked why it is that the Postal Service always manages to lose Christmas packages to Mom but never fails to deliver explosive devices from mad bombers. But the best joke of all was when Letterman mentioned Gov. Pete Wilson's efforts to try the alleged Unabomber in California.

"You have a high-profile murder case, plenty of evidence," Letterman said. "Let me tell you something, ladies and gentlemen: You try this case in California, and in six months the Unabomber is playing golf with O.J." Touché.

ABC (Sun., May 12, 9 p.m. ET)

B+

When Walter Brennan, Andy Devine and Dub Taylor passed from the scene, it seemed that the Golden Age of the Old Coot was over. What a pleasant surprise that Keith Carradine and Harry Dean Stanton have stepped in to scoop up the fallen torch. Wily as rattlesnakes, these crusty old varmints are the highlights of this absorbing adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel. Sagebrush mentors to a passel of callow youths on a doomed foray into Comanche territory, the feisty codgers are full of tall tales and handy tips, such as how to commit suicide in a jiffy when the torture-minded enemy is closing in. The saga does go a bit off the rails at the end when a leprous English opera singer pops in and scares the puzzled warlord Buffalo Hump into early retirement, but generally this miniseries (concluding Monday at 8 p.m. ET) more than holds its own.

NBC (Mon., May 13, 9 p.m. ET)

C-

Furious at Dad's strict curfew policy, Melissa Joan Hart tricks a juvenile delinquent (Jeremy Jordan) into gunning down both Mom (Homicide's Isabella Hofmann) and Dad (Homicide's Daniel Baldwin). Then the psychopathic Valley Girl dumps the killer for a hunk named—you guessed it—Brad. Deep-sixing the perky image from her Clarissa Explains It All days, Hart sort of looks, and sort of acts, like Alicia Silverstone in this TV movie, best thought of as a patricidal Clueless. Alas, Hart does not yet have her dramatic chops down and is overshadowed by the rest of the cast, particularly Jordan, who is convincing as her dimwitted coconspirator.

NBC (Wed., May 15, 8 p.m. ET)

A

Nineteen times out of 20, a polar bear fails to catch the seal it's stalking. But when it succeeds, look out. The visuals are breathtaking in this National Geographic special about the struggle for survival in the far North, but, as is usually the case with Mother Nature, not for the squeamish.

>Fred Savage

WORKING HIS WAY THROUGH COLLEGE

THE WONDER YEARS ARE OVER. Fred Savage, who, as prepubescent Kevin Arnold, agonized over his first kiss on the critically acclaimed ABC series (1988-93) about growing up in the '60s, is now 19, a sophomore at Stanford University and the star of No One Would Tell, a chilling NBC movie (Mon., May 6 at 9 p.m. ET). "To show people another dimension of myself," Savage says, he took off two weeks last January to take on the part of a volatile high school jock who physically abuses his girlfriend (Growing Pains alumna Candace Cameron).

Shedding his cute-kid image may be Savage's choice now, but it wasn't back in March 1993, when a former Wonder Years wardrobe assistant filed a sexual-harassment suit against him and Jason Hervey, who played Kevin's big brother Wayne. The suit was dropped nine months later. "It's over and done with, not even worth talking about," says Savage.

At Stanford, the part-time actor is a BMOC in the making. A double major in English and Communications, he is social chair of his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. "I plan all the parties," he says, noting that he's not looking for a steady relationship. "I date girls," Savage told PEOPLE, "but it's not a driving force in my life right now."

Family matters more. Savage chose Stanford's Palo Alto campus over Ivy League schools back East to remain closer to his parents—Lew, a real estate executive, and Joanne, a home-maker—who live in Los Angeles with his brother Ben, 15, a star of ABC's Boy Meets World, and sister Kayla, 17, an L.A. stage actress.

After he earns his B.A., Savage plans to keep acting—and try his hand at directing too. "My goal by graduation," he says, "is to have written a 15-or 20-minute short and then shoot that. Just a short," he emphasizes. "To see if I'm any good at it."

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