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Of all the creative teams in Hollywood, the Fox network's comedy-development group must be suffering from the worst bout of low self-esteem in town. All three of the awful new Fox comedies that debuted in September were quickly canceled. Moreover, of the six Fox sitcoms launched last fall, all but one have vanished from the schedule.

The survivor, Ned and Stacey, which had its second-season premiere last week in a prime new time slot--Sundays, 8:30 p.m. ET, between The Simpsons and The X-Files--offers evidence that the network's comedy division isn't entirely bereft of competence. Ned and Stacey pairs Thomas Haden Church and Debra Messing as opposites who both loathe and want each other. Last season had the two locked in a sham marriage--he needed a wife for a promotion, she played bride for room in his swank apartment. This season they are divorced roommates. The conceit is absurd, to be sure; the focus on ill-suited lovebirds-in-the-making, well worn. But the show somehow manages to mine subversive comedy from this unpromising vein. Having faith in the show's smart voice, Fox gave it another run despite last year's low ratings.

Ned and Stacey is the rare modern TV comedy that has been bold enough to create a not very feminist-minded imbalance between romantic sparring partners. Stacey is an empty-headed liberal prone to statements like, "I'm not interested in things that are frivolous and superficial!" More Sam Malone than Diane Chambers, she is no match for her verbally agile would-be beau. He is the kind of guy who mocks her poor judgment in dates with lines like, "I could throw a loaded bong into a mosh pit and still hit a better guy than you could pick out."

The show is an unabashed celebration of male arrogance. Ned is the prize even though he is an egomaniacal adman who conned his apartment away from an Alzheimer's patient. What redeems him is that he has fallen for Stacey, a forgetful slob, a writer of lame airline-magazine articles, a well-meaning loser.

Even if the show weren't so Ned-centric in conception, Thomas Haden Church might make it so. Church, himself a quick-witted former copywriter, lets smugness go untrammeled. Every expression, every perfectly boyish ironic grin he delivers conveys his proud condescension to all. Like an Alex Keaton, his cleverness always offsets his callousness, and we really just want to hug Ned in the end.

Church has also been blessed with a deep, reflexively sardonic voice that makes every phrase he utters funnier than anything you will hear on, say, Suddenly Susan. If TV land were a just place, Ned and Stacey would enjoy that show's success.

--By Ginia Bellafante