TV REVIEW : Thumbs Down as ‘Hitchhiker’ Shifts to Cable’s USA Network

When twirling the TV dial this summer, should you come across “The Hitchhiker"--cable’s long-running suspense anthology series, moving from HBO to the USA Network this season--your safest bet is to do what you’d do if you ran into one of the show’s disheveled namesakes out on the open road. That is, jus’ keep a-goin’.

At least that would be the prudent advice based on the season’s first three episodes, which, thanks to a French co-production deal, all have plots shakily focusing around ugly Americans in Paris. Despite the new locale, thumbin’ host Page Fletcher still shows up for each prologue and epilogue, backpack in tow, looking like some bohemian goofball who just picked up a “Europe on $5 a Day” paperback.

This Hitchhiker fellow is no Serling or Hitchcock. (Would that he followed the lead of his replacement on HBO, the Crypt Keeper, and at least cracked a bad pun or three--but no.) The poor fellow has to intone solemn, show-closing morals-of-the-story, a la: “Like most hypocrites, Frank March didn’t understand that all he was doing was setting a trap for himself.” But in fact, all these tales have the same predictable theme: Instant karma’s gonna get ya .

Saturday’s season premiere, “Dark Wishes,” has as its karma victim a young nurse plotting to kill her ailing, married female charge in order to win a rich husband. In the lead role, Tammy Lauren turns in a complex performance--one better than the hokey story deserves--and evokes sympathy by emphasizing class differences that might lead to adultery and murder. The message, though, has less to do with economic and sexual betrayal than being careful which shaman you choose to voodoo with.

In “Garter Belt,” airing next Friday, karma victim-of-the-week Robert Carradine is appropriately callow but still perfectly dreadful as a Parisian embassy worker caught in a web of blackmail thanks to a penchant for prostitutes. No supernatural hook here, but the “twist” ending comes in on schedule like Old Faithful.

On Saturday, July 8, Brian Kerwin invokes yet more serious bad karma in “Shadow Puppets” as a psychologist who takes too keen an interest in some of his patients--one of whom, Miriam Cyr, is possessed by a demon that doesn’t take kindly to touchy-feely victimizers. It’s competently told and well-acted with zero surprises.

All “Hitchhiker” episodes air at 10 p.m. Let the driver beware.