There are ways to make schoolhouse characters funny, one bit of evidence being that Fox animated classic, "The Simpsons," where the school attended by Bart and Lisa is headed by that dependably hilarious boob, Principal Skinner.
In contrast is "The Faculty," a new ABC sitcom of slight merit that stars Meredith Baxter as Flynn Sullivan, the somewhat sane vice principal at a junior high school whose staff is mostly warped and whose gratingly inept, humorless, ever-foggy principal (Peter Michael Goetz) tap dances in his office and is doted on by his protective, territorial-minded secretary (Nancy Lenehan).
The energy is high but the laughs too few on a premiere in which Flynn weighs what discipline to give a student responsible for creating graffiti that accuses one of the teachers of having sex with sheep. The victimized teacher (Peter MacKenzie) frets about being labeled "the school pervert . . . who sleeps with anything that walks or hops."
In fact, the bestiality graffiti becomes the 8:30 p.m. episode's running joke, yet another example of a network flaunting relatively raunchy material at an hour highly accessible to young kids. Talk about begging for the V-chip.
Most of the one-liners here fall to the school's most cynical teacher (Constance Shulman), while Baxter's character tries to make sense of it all. She and the show have occasional moments, and its second episode, in which the staff plays a practical joke that backfires, is moderately more amusing. But not nearly enough to compensate for its banality.
The UPN crime drama "Swift Justice" deploys the kind of music, lighting and camera work you might associate with something artsy. Yet this new series from Dick Wolf ("Law & Order," "New York Undercover") smacks of TV as usual, the latest in a long line of shows about cop rebels who constantly irritate their superiors and seek job satisfaction on the fringes of the system.
In this case, the dark hero who feels constricted is NYPD undercover detective Mac Swift (James McCaffrey). He spends the hour falling for a prostitute (Kim Dickens) who needs the hooking money to pay her college tuition and her sick mother's doctors. When he's not doing that, he's trying to put the kabosh on new-to-town super mobster Jack Cantrell (Skip Sudduth).
Meanwhile, Mac's scruffy partner, Randall Paterson (Gary Dourdan), is the classic sidekick, having little to do besides backing up his maverick pal.
You can't miss the holes in "Swift Justice." One of them opens very wide when Mac tries to get close to Cantrell by passing himself off as someone trying to make a drug deal. Cantrell accuses him of wearing "a wire." Mac denies it. Inexplicably, Cantrell never lifts Mac's shirt to check.
"Swift Justice" is extremely violent--curiously, with lots of guys getting blown away mostly without any bloodshed, as if a sanitizer came through and vacuumed the gore. Still more lethal is the story, which is never very involving or interesting, the purpose of this first hour being to give Mac an excuse for leaving NYPD so that he can spend the rest of the series attacking crime without having to obey the rules. Whether this will make him and "Swift Justice" any more compelling remains to be seen.
* "The Faculty" premieres at 8:30 tonight on ABC (Channels 7, 3).
* "Swift Justice" premieres at 9 tonight on UPN (Channel 13).