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A Rare Misfire by Kelley

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

ABC’s new “Snoops” proves that even the creator of “Chicago Hope,” “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice” is capable of a clunker.

David E. Kelley’s series about two detective babes is a lesser achiever by far than this weekend’s other premiering hours, the intriguing “Freaks and Geeks” on NBC and amiable “Jack & Jill” on WB.

Suffering at times intersects the humor in “Freaks and Geeks,” whose 1980 setting severs it from the recent student-outcasts-strike-back-by-killing episodes epitomized by this year’s shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

It’s difficult knowing which set of so-called misfits would qualify ultimately for black trench coats at the Michigan high school in this series: the timid, cowering, puny geeks or the more powerful freaky mutants who relentlessly terrorize them.

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In any case, the seeds of something ominous are clearly visible in “Freaks and Geeks,” even though it may never happen in a series that deploys its conflicts mostly for laughs. At the very least, though, this is a rare hour of TV with big possibilities.

It opens by tracing the ups and downs of two siblings trying to navigate the maze of high school. He’s freshman Sam Weir (John Daley), whose small size and timidity make him fresh meat for bullies, and she’s the older Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), a sophomore who wears her father’s old Army jacket to class as a symbol of rebellion and rejects taking part in an academic decathlon despite being the school’s best “mathlete.”

Meanwhile, her parents haven’t a clue, with her father (Joe Flaherty) reciting the same mantra about every popular figure he thinks may be her role model: “You know what happened to him? He died.”

High schoolers typically seek acceptance through alliances. As Sam is close pals with equally geeky sci-fi maven Neal (Samm Levine) and gangly Nick (Jason Segel), Lindsay begins edging away from fellow “brains” in hopes of gaining credibility with the freaks. It gets a bit confusing, especially as the premiere’s main freak tormentor of geeks is smallish and nerdy-looking himself.

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Despite her recent freak tendencies, Lindsay has a good heart and doesn’t hesitate to defend her brother or other victims of harassment. “There’s a good kind of laughing and a bad kind of laughing,” she admonishes two boys cruelly mocking a mentally slow student who doesn’t realize they’re making fun of him.

More significantly “Freaks and Geeks” speaks with a more authentic teen voice than other series in this genre, becoming an antidote for WB’s “Dawson’s Creek,” whose articulate, sophisticated high schoolers are adults in youthful bodies.

In contrast, the protagonists here stumble far more often than they swagger. When attending his homecoming dance, for example, Sam walks like he’s wearing cement shoes en route to a cheerleader he has a crush on.

The downside is that situations and characters here are so overdrawn, little space remains for subtlety or nuance. The show’s attitudes are polarized in the extreme: There are targets and target shooters, with no grays in between. Even some of the teachers fall under the latter category, evidenced by geeks getting some of their body parts rearranged in gym class during a violent game of dodge ball. Later, united in geekdom, they strike back.

So go geeks! Like those it depicts, this series is already an interesting work in progress.

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As is “Jack & Jill,” even though it’s as contrived at times as its too-too-precious title.

She’s moved to New York from Boston after leaving her philandering fiance at the altar. Then by sheer coincidence, she meets this swell guy as she’s moving into the building that he’s moving out of.

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“I’m Jacqueline Barrett. My friends call me Jack.”

“I’m David Jillefsky. My friends call me Jill.”

The premiere has more dots to connect, for in another amazing coincidence, Jack finds work at the very TV station that employs Jill’s girlfriend, Elisa, and soon these points of light are forming a romantic triangle.

It could have been worse. They could have bumped into the previous hour’s Felicity at the corner deli.

These script conveniences aside, “Jack & Jill” has it all over most similar prime-time gatherings of beautiful faces wallowing in self-absorption. That’s because the show is often genuinely charming, and amusing in spots, without being forced.

Jack (Amanda Peet), Jill (Ivan Sergei) and Elisa (Sarah Paulson) are basically intelligent characters, moreover, who can be envisioned actually existing in the real world.

As are Jack’s apartment mate, Audrey (Jaime Pressly), who has been spending much of her time waiting outside theaters in cattle calls, and Jill’s med student friend, Barto (Justin Kirk), who is about to face the daunting task of slicing his first cadaver. Their other close friend, Mikey (Simon Rex), is sort of Mike O’Malley-lite, but likable.

Sergei projects a sweet, gawky vulnerability as Jill, a toy designer who spends much of the premiere wavering between the equally appealing Jack and Elisa. Jack’s former fiance reenters the picture in the second episode, and we see Jill U-Hauling himself to Elisa’s place.

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Whom does he ultimately choose? Well, the show’s not named Jack & Jill & Elisa.

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On the other hand, its name is all that’s memorable about “Snoops,” which awkwardly pairs Gina Gershon and Paula Marshall as squabbling private eyes tenuously coexisting in a gadget-driven agency that never met a person or room it couldn’t--and wouldn’t--bug or spy on illegally.

“We have more in common with criminals, we just have better intentions,” says Gershon as brash Glenn Hall, explaining things to her partner-to-be, Marshall’s Dana Plant, a crackerjack Santa Monica Police detective who winces at such law-breaking tactics.

The sourest expressions may belong to viewers expecting something from the celebrated Kelley beyond the banality of this show’s initial two episodes. The mundane premiere centers on the seemingly routine death of a woman whose cousin insists she was murdered by a family member. Meanwhile, another of Hall’s detectives (Danny Nucci) repeatedly hits his mark with tranquilizer darts, and Plant’s detective ex-boyfriend and partner (Edward Kerr) tries to persuade her not to leave the force.

The mystery isn’t mysterious, nor is there any doubt about what ultimately transpires in the even dopier second episode, when Gershon goes undercover as a country singer to set a trap for a serial killer to bail out the cops. Admittedly, they “got nuthin’.” In addition, her detective in training (Paula Jai Parker) goes undercover dressed in “slutwear.”

The apparent goal here is style and humor over content, meaning that Gershon, Marshall and babe-speak, not plots, are the point of “Snoops.” A bad plan, for these two project no chemistry, a weakness that’s especially notable when their characters compete or verbally joust, with the more interesting actress (Gershon) creating an imbalance by commanding your attention. So, no mystery, no electricity.

Like the cops, in other words, “Snoops” got nuthin’.

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* “Freaks and Geeks” airs tonight at 8 on NBC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

* “Jack & Jill” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on WB. The network has rated it TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).

* “Snoops” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for coarse language and violence).


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