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Ronnie Chase, owner of the lingerie house Veronica's Closet, tells millions of women how to feel sexy. Yet her response to a question about the last time she had sex is, "When did that Ferris Bueller movie come out?" Ronnie is the latest in one of TV's perennial fall lines: the expert at work who can't control life at home (cf. Newhart, Home Improvement). With writer-producers Marta Kauffman and David Crane (Friends) polishing the assembly-line gags until they're hand-tooled, and with Kirstie Alley in fine form, Veronica's Closet deserves to last as long as Bob's and Tim's sitcoms.

The show convenes familiar supporting types--the hunk (Dan Cortese), the wisecracking assistant (Kathy Najimy), the black guy (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell) and the is-he-gay? guy (Wallace Langham)--to bring sense and sarcasm to Ronnie's hectic, arid life. A genial dynamo running her undies empire, for which she was the original cover-girl model, she has a slightly spreading figure and a philandering husband (Christopher McDonald) who is, dammit, the man she loves. This week's debut episode, with Ronnie and her husband attempting a reunion, carries weird echoes of the Princess Diana tragedy: famous couple, paparazzi at a restaurant, even a drunken chauffeur.

That's just a fluke. What's not is Alley's 21-in., fraz-glam star quality. It's more than the exotic eyes and that falling lock of hair she is forever brushing back (35 times in the first 22-minute episode). Her dusky voice can surge into exasperation or giddify into girlish vamping. Best of all, she knows that TV comedy doesn't need pushing; a joke can be caressed into a jewel. Less frenetic than Lucy, more mature than Mary, Alley has a shot at being TV's all-time funny woman. Funny in italics. Woman in triumph.

--By Richard Corliss