TELEVISION: NO LATTES, NO BELLY BUTTONS

TWO NEW SITCOMS, BOTH WITH TOP PEDIGREES, TURN THEIR BACKS ON TRENDINESS. UNFORTUNATELY, THEY ALSO TURN THEIR BACKS ON WIT

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FRIENDS CLONES ARE PILING UP like drifts this season. Viewers of such shows as Caroline in the City and Partners have been inundated by a flurry of awful blind dates, a blizzard of mistaken sexual identities, a foot and a half to two feet of jokes ending with the punch line "Anna Nicole Smith." And yet, to the credit of these comedies, rarely--if ever--do they pause for a would-be-poignant, piano-accompanied contemplation of the world's social ills. It may not be inventive, but we can rest assured there will never be a very special Single Guy about date rape.

Two midseason comedies making their debuts next week try to be something different. Both NBC's Third Rock from the Sun (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m., est) and ABC's Champs (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.) feature characters well into their 40s who don't sip lattes or sport cute haircuts. Unfortunately, both shows evince a fondness for tackling gender-war issues with a Norman Lear-like heavy hand.

Third Rock stars John Lithgow as the head of an alien quartet sent from another planet to study earthling behavior. With no knowledge of human mating rituals, the visitors are astonished by every discovery. When Lithgow, in the guise of a university professor, is invited to his first wedding, he tells his alien friend Sally that "the ceremony begins with the bride being given away." "Excuse me," she says. "Given away? Like an object? As in, free girl with every large fries?" The show is packed with many such consciousness-raising insights-insights that may have been trenchant back when Simone de Beauvoir was drafting The Second Sex. Third Rock's creators, veteran Saturday Night Live writers Bonnie and Terry Turner, have described the show as "Carl Sagan meets the Marx Brothers." In reality, it's Maude meets Mork & Mindy.

Champs--the first TV show from Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen's DreamWorks studio--is far more sentimental. It stars Timothy Busfield--Elliot on thirtysomething--as Tom McManus, a happily married father who spends most of his time with three romantically troubled buddies he's known since high school, all of whom own far too many pairs of sweatpants. Tom and his wife Linda (Ashley Crow) long for a time when their friends were not divorced; perhaps they should also long for dialogue with observations more interesting than "You can't turn back the clock."

In one discomfiting episode, Tom tries to set up his balding doctor pal Herb (Paul McCrane) with a lusty ad executive. When the plan seems to backfire, a crushed Herb laments that "it's all about looks, image, sex appeal." And then he adds, still without a trace of irony, "I thought it would be different when I got older. I thought people would judge me for my accomplishments. I saved a guy's life today, but nobody cares." Are those unexamining twentysomethings really so bad after all?

--By Ginia Bellafante