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Ready, Aim, Click!

What a difference a year makes.

Nine series that began the 1997-98 television season on Monday night are now history. Expect the same for at least some of their successors, six of which premiere tonight in advance of a trio of scrawny new UPN comedies due to arrive Oct. 5.

Given how programs tend to suckle their lead-ins when it comes to ratings, the fate of CBS’ new 10 p.m. drama, “L.A. Doctors,” will rest in part on the Nielsen success of two comedies that are premiering earlier in the evening against a pair of new NBC sitcoms.

Also joining the fray tonight, meanwhile, is the young-skewed WB drama, “Hyperion Bay.”

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* Dueling Comedies 1: “The King of Queens,” CBS, vs. “Conrad Bloom,” NBC, at 8:30 p.m. No contest. “Conrad Bloom” is pretty much a loud thud, while “The King of Queens” demonstrates how funny writing and good execution can supersede a hackneyed series concept. This one is “the move-in.” You know, things are going great for you in your happy little home when an alien--usually a dependent in-law or slothful relative--unexpectedly moves in and gums up everything. Oy!

In “The King of Queens,” a double whammy hits Doug Heffernan (Kevin James), a parcel deliveryman whose dream existence--having a basement room for him and his bozo buddies to watch sports on his 60-inch set--is disrupted by the presence of his sister-in-law (Lisa Rieffel) and his just-widowed 75-year-old father-in-law (Jerry Stiller).

“I love those guys,” Doug says about his Neanderthal sports-watching buddies.

“Good,” answers his wife, Carrie (Leah Remini). “Maybe you could toilet train them?”

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James and Remini mesh; Stiller (as he showed as George’s father on “Seinfeld”) can play outrageous with anyone, and this good cast gets some snappy lines worthy of its skills.

By the way, Episode 2 is less funny than the premiere, but there’s always hope for No. 3.

None, though, for “Conrad Bloom,” which is about a young advertising copywriter (Mark Feuerstein) who is an intolerable do-gooder, managing only an occasional whimper while allowing himself to be manipulated by those around him.

Heading that list is his self-obsessed, neurotic mother (Linda Lavin), who chats regularly with her dead husband. Yuk yuk. At the office, meanwhile, Conrad is forced into a work partnership with an over-the-hill, drug-hazed former star ad-writer (Steve Landesberg) who is in a total fog.

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Although Feuerstein is likable enough, his character’s relentless wimpiness is hard to bear. And the premiere’s clumsy attempts at humor--including some cheap jokes at the expense of animal rights activists--hardly serve him well.

* Dueling Comedies 2: “Will & Grace,” NBC, vs. “The Brian Benben Show,” CBS, at 9:30 p.m.. Although hardly as funny as its billing, “Will & Grace” is in a much higher place than “The Brian Benben Show.” This affirms that even an actor with superior talent--which Benben displayed consistently on HBO’s wonderful “Dream On"--is at the mercy of his material.

His material here is merciless.

After 15 years as a local news anchor, Brian is bumped by a sexier young news team and relegated to doing human-interest features. Expect some occasional pointed humor, with Brian at one point angrily telling his smug young successor, Chad (Charles Esten): “I’d pour this coffee in your lap if I thought I’d hit anything.”

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It’s the rest of the comedy that fails to hit anything, though. Foregoing subtlety, much of the premiere is either repulsive--such as gratuitously making the aged an automatic object of ridicule--or flat-out infantile, bordering on sub-stupid. Typifying the latter is the bitter Brian’s foolish, over-the-top attempt to sabotage Chad on the air. With the real TV news being such a self-mocking low burlesque, more of these overshooting verbal and physical pratfalls may guarantee this series obscurity.

“Will & Grace,” on the other hand, carries a big buzz, some of which is driven by the on-screen compatibility of co-stars Eric McCormack and Debra Messing. Clearly, they work together.

The rest comes from Will being openly gay, which merits a large asterisk in the immediate aftermath of ABC’s controversial “Ellen.”

Although they’re a great-looking couple, Will and Grace are strictly platonic, living on after tonight’s pilot as flatmates and close friends in a pairing of two smart characters--he’s a successful Manhattan lawyer, she’s an interior designer--you wouldn’t mind revisiting.

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Yet there’s something not quite right about this show’s approach to homosexuality.

It’s unrelated to Will being masculine and, like the protagonist of “Ellen,” a rather conventional type discounting his sexual orientation. In fact, score this as another blow against stereotyping.

It has everything to do with his attitude. It approaches asexual, his gayness appearing to exist solely as a device to give him the moral authority to repeatedly ridicule the mincing manner of his bandanna-wearing homosexual friend, Jack (Sean Hayes), without being labeled homophobic.

Will to the flamboyant Sean: “I know it’s gotta be tough on you, living in a man’s body like that.” If Will laughs at Sean, presumably it’s safe for Peoria to laugh, too. Yet this and similar cheap remarks sound almost self-hating, something quite different than African Americans using the “N” word on each other, and something this otherwise appealing series ought to cut out unless it plans to explore Will’s feelings about being gay more fully than it does in its first two episodes.

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* “L.A. Doctors,” CBS. Here is a well-acted, attractively staged hour about four doctors who see their swanky practice as an antidote to the worst ills of raging HMO-itis. But how much goodness can you take?

Evan Newman (Rick Roberts) is the office’s sensitive moralist who is especially resistant to fast-food medicine and fearful of not living up to his own lofty credo.

“At the end of the day, all we can do is our best,” Tim Lonner (Matt Craven), the office’s family man, tells him. Evan: “What is our best?”

Yikes! The more you’re exposed to this glossy, pretentious babble, the more you’d like to immediately will Evan’s tongue to science.

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Meanwhile, Roger Cattan (Ken Olin) is the office’s indulgent designer doctor, starting off as less a noble healer than a shallow materialist, thus less into patients than waiting room decor and ensuring that he and his colleagues have a public image “consistent with the clientele.” Although he begins each episode as Dr. Rodeo Drive, he inevitably comes around to a position of integrity and virtue, of course.

And joining these three halos before the final credits of Episode 1 is Dr. Sarah Churchill (Sheryl Lee), who shares their idealism (“I’ve seen what you don’t want, and I don’t want it either”) and, as a bonus, is a real babe.

Warning: Watching this might cause a severe allergic reaction.

* “Hyperion Bay,” WB. Not a bad little hour if your taste runs to peach fuzz. A budding computer mogul in his mere 20s, Dennis Sweeny (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is triumphantly back in town, driving up in a Mercedes convertible with a snazzy girlfriend en route to clashes with city fathers over his new high-tech facility and with his resentful older brother, Nick (Dylan Neal), over rank and status.

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Nick is a former town superjock whose own fortunes have sunk while his kid brother’s have soared. While Dennis pursued his dreams at college and beyond, Nick remained behind to work in the family construction business run by their father (Raymond J. Barry). And now that business is on the skids, as is Nick’s marriage.

Meanwhile, Dennis is finally having the last laugh on the former high school bully who used to push him around, and the former cheerleader he once adored from afar is now showing an interest.

Sibling combat over manhood and other matters is “Hyperion Bay” at its best. But wunderkind, shmunderkind Gosselaar at times lacks the authority needed to portray this phenom, looking a bit like a kid playing dress-up in his dad’s clothes. More than anything, “Hyperion Bay” is often uncomfortably soft and oozy as it monitors its young protagonist’s deep introspection.

“Maybe,” he says, “that’s one of the reasons I came back here--to figure stuff out.” Seeing him do it tonight is only occasionally rewarding.

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* “The King of Queens” premieres at 8:30 tonight on CBS (Channel 2). The network has rated it TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and suggestive dialogue).

* “Conrad Bloom” premieres at 8:30 tonight on NBC (Channel 4). The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

* “The Brian Benben Show” premieres at 9:30 tonight on CBS (Channel 2). The network has rated it TV-PG-DL.

* “Will & Grace” premieres at 9:30 tonight on NBC (Channel 4). The network has rated it TV-PG.

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* “Hyperion Bay” premieres at 9 tonight on WB (Channel 5). The network has rated it TV-PG-DL.

* “L.A. Doctors” premieres at 10 tonight on CBS (Channel 2). The network has rated it TV-PG.


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