COMEDY

NBC (Thurs., March 24, 9:30 p.m. ET)

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Talk about two countries separated by a common language. When NBC tried to Americanize the British hits Men Behaving Badly and Coupling, the resulting shows might as well have been called Lost in Translation. Now the network is having a go at The Office, a priceless workplace comedy with an enthusiastic following in the U.S. thanks to its airings on BBC America (which reruns the first season March 26 from noon to 4 p.m.). Devotees are probably poised to dismiss the adaptation out of hand, but I found enough funny business here to overcome my sales resistance.

If anything, the new show's debut script tracks the Britcom too closely. The names and a few terms have been changed—"redundancies" is now "downsizing"—but enter the Dunder-Mifflin company's Scranton, Pa., office and you'll instantly note the similarity between regional manager Michael (Daily Show alum Steve Carell) and Ricky Gervais's idiot-boss character from the original. Though at first you may think Carell labors to approximate Gervais's frantically phony bonhomie, I couldn't help laughing at Michael's unshakable delusion that his tired act is going over big with the troops. The series quickly establishes a faux-documentary style as the boss introduces an unseen film crew to Pam (Jenna Fischer), the receptionist who cringes at his compulsive joking; Jim (John Krasinski), an affable but bored-stiff sales rep with a sweet crush on Pam; and status-obsessed Dwight (Rainn Wilson), who huffily portrays himself as Michael's second in command while falling victim to Jim's pitiless pranks. Human beings can be petty and cruel when they have nothing better to do.

The second episode, airing March 29 at 9:30 in the show's regular slot, finds humor both broad and edgy in a diversity seminar that reveals Michael as Mr. Insensitivity. For The Office to work long-term, it must avoid softening the boss but keep him from being so obnoxious that viewers quit without two weeks' notice.

DRAMA

USA (Fri., March 25, 9 p.m. ET)

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In the '70s series on CBS, Theo Kojak was played by Greek-American Telly Savalas. Now USA is reviving the concept, and African-American Ving Rhames takes over the title character. Race and ethnicity matter less in this case than the power of the brand: Kojak still stands for Tough New York Cop.

Rhames is just fine in the role, wearing jauntily angled hats over his shaved head, sucking on Kojak's Spring Break Shark Attack trademark lollipops with panache and proving equally adept at terrifying bad guys and charming innocent children. The lieutenant bends the rules, of course, but his captain (Chazz Palminteri) is an old pal with a "do what you have to do" attitude.

Before moving to the Sunday-at-10 spot on April 3, the series has a two-hour premiere that concerns a serial killer who preys on prostitutes in a gratuitously gruesome manner. Unfortunately, a plot twist leads Kojak to make a decision so morally dubious that he's going to be harder to respect in the weeks ahead.

THRILLER

CBS (Sun., March 20, 9 p.m. ET)

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"It's those guys—they're sharks," says Dad, explaining why he won't allow Danielle (Shannon Lucio, seen as Lindsay on The O.C.) to spend spring break in Florida.

That's, like, the big metaphor in this thin but watchable Jaws knock-off. Disobedient Danielle sneaks off to the Sunshine State—the film was shot in South Africa, but a beach is a beach—and meets slick collegian J.T. (Justin Baldoni), a sexual predator so shark-like he's almost finny. Luckily she finds her Galahad in blue-collar Shane (Riley Smith), who works in a boat-chartering business owned by his mother, (Kathy Baker).

So much for the characters. You're here to se sharks attack, and things do get fairly exciting when there's blood in the water. As Danielle and Shane put it, "Omigod!"

NEWS REENACTMENT

E! (Weeknights, 7:30 and 9 pm)

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Someday an Off-Broadway theater company will dramatize transcripts from the Jackson trial, much as they already camp up Brady Bunch scripts. The story is too awful, too weird, too perverse and yet of too deep a cultural significance to forget.

But E!'s compellingly bizarre daily recap will be hard to top.

The show intersperses brief transcripted trial scenes—acted out in a reproduction of Judge Rodney Melville's screamingly ugly Santa Maria courtroom—with whoopingly energetic commentary from a team of legal experts who seem to have clerked under Justice Chris Matthews. (One of them, Howard Weitzman, is a former Jackson attorney.) The dramatizations, oddly enough, are more credible. Listless, stiff, dull, shrill, the performers seem to have been recruited from Napoleon Dynamite—but isn't that how people seem in court? It's law, not the Thriller tour. At press time, the show's star, Jackson impersonator Edward Moss, had said only a few lines, but with a dazed gruffness that suggested privileged arrogance or a pathetic lack of awareness. The performance could even evolve into something that captures the Gloved One's peculiar tragedy.

Life on a Stick (FOX, March 23, 9:30 p.m. ET) His food-court job is lame. His dad (Matthew Glave) and stepmom (Amy Yasbeck) are shallow. But that's life for 18-year-old Laz (Zachary Knighton) in this sitcom's premiere.

Chasing Farrah (TV Land, March 23, 10 p.m. ET) She's not an angel anymore. A new reality series follows Farrah Fawcett through parties, paparazzi encounters and everyday stuff.

It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown (ABC, March 25, 8 p.m. ET) The Peanuts gang can't agree on an egg-coloring approach in the 1974 animated favorite.

NAACP Image Awards (FOX, March 25,8 p.m. ET) Oprah Winfrey and Prince are honored.

Little House on the Prairie (ABC, March 26,8 p.m. ET) No, not the old show. It's a new five-week series based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's stories of her frontier family.

  • Contributors:
  • TERRY KELLEHER,
  • TOM GLIATTO.