USA (Sundays, 7p.m. ET)

C+

This sitcom, the leadoff show in a night of original programming, is part of the USA Network's effort to improve its tacky image. That is a pity for those of us for whom tackiness offers a charming oasis of plastic palms and piped-in, fluoridated water. For instance, I really liked last year's USA movie Maternal Instincts, with Delta Burke going psycho and running amok with a big wrench. Claude's Crib, created by, produced by and starring young black actor Claude Brooks, will upset no one. It probably won't interest anyone either. Brooks inherits his grandmother's house, along with her tiny speck of a dog, and makes ends meet by letting out rooms to an interracial group of very attractive twentysomethings. As the show's center, Brooks has made sure his character is likable and easygoing, but at this point there is not much else to say about him. Like Friends, the show is supposed to be about young people, college age or not much older, but it feels more mid-30s.

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

C

Jason Bateman, displaying a comic style that suggests an unstable mix of Michael J. Fox's edgy perkiness and Matthew Perry's laconic jokiness, stars as one of three brothers sharing an apartment in Chicago. He's an architect. Younger brother David Krumholtz has no real career and instead schemes to land one business deal or another. Oldest brother D.W. Moffett is a construction worker with a foundering marriage back in Cicero, 111. They could just as easily be fraternity brothers or fellow Shriners. There is nothing familial about them at all except that they speak in identically slick sitcom patter. I don't think Chicago Sons will last long enough to produce a spinoff—Cicero Daughters.

CBS (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET)

B

Larry Hagman returns to series television for the first time since Dallas wrapped five years ago. Here we have another metropolitan setting, this time the Crescent City, but the tone is quite different from that of Dallas—less high-octane energy and a lot more moral swampiness. Orleans is about a prominent family headed by Hagman as a cagey, powerful old judge named Luther Charbonnet. His son Jesse (Michael Reilly Burke) is an assistant district attorney and harbors an incestuous fondness for his cousin. Another son, Clade (Brett Cullen), works as a police detective. And the judge's daughter Paulette (Colleen Flynn) is trying to build a casino, although her drug problems may derail that plan. Given these occupations, a Charbonnet party usually winds up with a lot of seamy shoptalk (bribery, murders, mobsters) while a Cajun band plays in the background. Hagman, looking older—and, oddly enough, like Jimmy Carter in some scenes—is gritty and good. Unlike J.R., Charbonnet does not get his kicks from wickedness. But he has seen so much evil and knows so much dirt, he seems tarnished nonetheless. The two-hour, Jan. 8 premiere indulges in too much cute courtroom humor, but Orleans might develop into something good.

PBS (San., Jan. 12, 9p.m. ET)

A-

Done in a clipped, pseudodocumentary style, this hour-long Masterpiece Theatre episode offers a diverting and informative account of the disastrous marriage of George, Prince of Wales (Richard E. Grant), and his German bride, Princess Caroline of Brunswick (Susan Lynch). Temperamentally, theirs was a misalliance from its commencement in 1795. He was offended by her coarse joie de vivre and casual notions of hygiene. She had vague dreams that her love would tame his profligate partying and his depletion of the royal treasury. But she was quickly put off by the fact that he appointed his mistress, the Lady Jersey, to be her lady-in-waiting. The prince and princess eventually lived apart, both throwing themselves into extramarital affairs, although Caroline was able to maintain public sympathy as the spurned wife. The parallels between these ninnies and the current Prince of Wales and Princess Diana—right down to whether the estranged wife's name should be included in the national prayers and the question of which party was more adroit at exploiting the press—are unmistakable, and that is exactly the point. Glorious, stupid royals! How can we get some?

>Matt Lauer

SITTING PRETTY

THE ANGST OF UNEMPLOYMENT? MATT Lauer knows all about it. Fired as host of a New York City area talk show in 1990, the Chappaqua, N.Y., native was so desperate for work—any work—that he almost took a job as a tree-cutter. "I would sit staring at the phone," says Lauer, 39. "I know what it's like to be without a job."

Times sure have changed. Tapped last month to replace Bryant Gumbel on the Today show (Gumbel, who quit after 15 years, hasn't announced his next move), Lauer has been on the fast track since joining Today, TV's top-rated morning show, as a news anchor in 1994. Gumbel's longtime sub (the two are now close friends), Lauer says his promotion, effective Jan. 6, was welcome but not surprising. "A lot of other people were qualified," he admits, "but I felt like possession is nine-tenths of the law." Today executive producer Jeff Zucker agrees. "Matt was the obvious choice. He's smart, inquisitive, easygoing—skills that people who've succeeded in this job have had."

It remains to be seen if Lauer—whose boyish good looks draw scores of admirers outside the studio (and made him one of PEOPLE'S 50 Most Beautiful in 1994)—can maintain Gumbel-sized ratings. "The pressure is going to increase tenfold now," says Lauer, who recently split with his fiancée, TV reporter Kristen Gesswein. So far, though, the affable anchor has few plans to change his style. "Maybe," he jokes, "I'll get a few new ties."

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Longley.