TRADITIONALLY, THE USA NETWORK hasn't gotten a whole lot of respect. Despite bigger prime-time audiences than any other cable channel, USA has often seemed a kind of backwater, if not a dumping ground. With a hodgepodge lineup of Murder, She Wrote reruns, pro wrestling, a bunch of dud TV movies and the well-liked but dreadful Miami-set series Silk Stalkings, the network's most prestigious programming in the past has been a few topflight sports events and the rare critical success like its version of Willa Cather's My Antonia.

Lately, things have been changing: new management, bigger budgets, more original shows. This fall, USA will continue to enhance its image with several expensive new series. The first is The Big Easy (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET), a cop show based on the 1987 film and shot in New Orleans. On first glance, Big Easy seems to be merely Silk Stalkings, gumbo-style, since it is set in a creepy milieu and features two law-enforcement officials who can't quite decide whether to become lovers. But there the similarity ends. Big Easy is funnier, more original and just plain better than its dumb Floridian cousin.

One big plus is New Orleans itself, a city unique in managing to fuse charm and sleaze. So there's lots of atmosphere: zydeco, voodoo, gators, the city's legendarily crooked pols. In addition, USA has put scads of money into the weekly series, and it looks it. "We're spending $1.1 million per episode," Rod Perth, president of USA Network Entertainment, told PEOPLE. "This is a tremendous risk for us."

The risk could pay off. Relative unknown Tony Crane does a fine job reprising Dennis Quaid's dumb-like-a-fox Cajun detective Remy McSwain. And Susan Walters, while no great actress, at least looks right as the public defender (Ellen Barkin's role in the movie) who can't decide whether to marry Remy or to prosecute him.

Of course, The Big Easy is still a formulaic cop show, but it has a quirky sense of humor that could be its saving grace. Take the episode in which a closet transvestite is killed by his best friend, also a cross-dresser. When the killer, in full regalia, is knocked to the ground by yet another drag queen, Crane compliments "Monica" on the jarring tackle. "Starting cornerback, LSU 1988," snaps the athletic transvestite. "Now give me back my boa."

Not great, but not bad.

Discovery Channel (Sun., Aug. 18, 9 p.m. ET)

B+

A boatload of lucky scientists visits the mecca of evolution and gets to do something Charles Darwin never did: go 3,000 feet below sea level to photograph species never before captured on film. The result is fantastic footage of weird sea creatures like bat-fish, scorpion fish and sea iguanas. But the program is hampered by the scientists' smug attitude toward Darwin and his primitive equipment. Sure, it's a neat trick to discover a new species every day, thanks to your amazing Buck Rogers submersible. But Darwin invented the theory of evolution, which changed the world. Chuck wins on points.

VH1 (begins Mon., Aug. 19, 8 p.m. ET)

B-

Baby boomers, who already own the '60s lock, stock and barrel, now annex the '70s in this five-part, weeklong series. If you can wade through the first two nights of pop sociology served up by the likes of Camille Paglia and the Band's Robbie Robertson—easily the most pretentious man in all of rock and roll—you might enjoy episode 3, which deals with the rise of rock music as an industry. That means lots of Led Zeppelin, the Ramones, David Bowie, Kiss and Queen, and absolutely no Paul Simon. And episode 5 amusingly recaps the abrupt rise and even more abrupt fall of disco. But mostly, VH1's backward glance is a big yawn: too much James Taylor, not enough James Brown. If you hated the Me Decade while you were living through it, wait till you hear Carly Simon talking about it for two nights running.

>Elvis's chef

TO SERVE THE KING

ELVIS PRESLEY CALLED MARY JENKINS May-Wee. Jenkins—for the final 14 years of the King's life—called Elvis for dinner. And breakfast and lunch and snacks in between. As Jenkins tells it in The Burger and the King: The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley, which premieres Aug. 16 on Cinemax, you couldn't get closer to Elvis than being his cook.

Presley, who was 6' tall and weighed more than 250 lbs. when he died, liked food. Having grown up in poverty, once he made it, Elvis, like Scarlett O'Hara, vowed never to go hungry again. For breakfast, which the singer usually ate in mid-afternoon, Jenkins would prepare five scrambled eggs, a half pound of pork sausage, six buttermilk biscuits, Cream of Wheat, orange juice and coffee. "I remember seeing Mr. Elvis sitting in his bed. eating those sausages and biscuits with the butter just running down his arms," she says.

Other Presley faves included fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches, lemon icebox pie, vegetable beef soup with corn-bread, and collard greens with ham hocks. "He loved his food real rich," she says.

It showed. Once, in an attempt to help her ever-growing boss slim down, Jenkins served up a sparse, low-fat meal. "He told me to come get that tray and bring him his breakfast," she says. "I told him we were just trying to help him go on a diet, and he said, 'Who writes your checks?' "

Not only did he write the checks, he also bought Jenkins a Pontiac and the Memphis house where she still lives. "I was blessed by God," she says, "to get the job working for him."

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sanderson.