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Sugar and Spice

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Finally, after wallowing in mud for so long, prime time is paying attention to the family values its critics have been demanding.

Take NBC’s new “Titans.”

After serving as a naval pilot in Kosovo, young Chandler Williams (Casper Van Dien) returns to the family mansion in Beverly Hills to find his fabulously wealthy father, Richard (Perry King), about to marry the evil vixen with whom Chandler recently had incredible sex. She’s the gold-digging Heather (Yasmine Bleeth), who has it out with Chandler’s strong-willed mother, Gwen (Victoria Principal), who lives in a mansion across the street and is lusted after by Richard’s brother, Jack (Jack Wagner), who secretly wants to take over the family business that Chandler will be joining, much to the dismay of his brother, Peter (John Barrowman), who like their sister, Jenny (Elizabeth Bogush), is an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Jenny and her sister, Laurie (Josie Davis), are rivals for the affections of David (Ingo Rademacher), who manages the nightclub owned by Gwen, who takes in her teenage nephew, Ethan (Kevin Zegers), after he flees his abusive home.

Then it’s time for the first commercial.

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Wrong family values? Then try “Gilmore Girls,” an amusing, highly promising light drama from the WB about mother-daughter bonding that is tender, warm and loving in a natural way without heaping on the schmaltz.

It’s set in a picturesque Connecticut hamlet, where young single parent Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) runs an inn and her 16-year-old daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel), is a conscientious student and bright, normal kid who enjoys spending time with her mother. Go figure.

Not that untidiness is absent from their lives in the first two episodes. When Rory is accepted into a fancy private school, Lorelai has nowhere to turn for the tuition except her wealthy, hoity-toity parents (Edward Herrmann and Kelly Bishop), from whom she has been mostly estranged, even though they live royally in nearby Hartford. The resulting tensions, with good work from Graham and Bledel, are palpable.

Although Lorelai’s WASPish parents and their rich friends are grating caricatures who need toning down, the second episode has a nice sequence with Rory and her stiff grandfather slowly melting the wall between them as he takes her for a round of golf at his country club.

That evolution, and its interesting impact on Lorelai, is not only credible but also seamless in this series created by Amy Sherman-Palladino. As is the humor here that includes having an antique shop owned by the mother of Rory’s school chum be such an impenetrable thicket that no one can locate the woman there. In fact, some of the supporting characters are especially strong, from the inn’s problematic cook and sniffy desk clerk to a paternalistic nag of a cafe owner.

“Gilmore Girls” is as distant from “Titans” as Kosovo is from Beverly Hills, the zip code that producer Aaron Spelling made famous on Fox with “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and the locale for his latest story about the rich and dysfunctional. Spelling is no trespasser regarding prime-time soap operas that crescendo across the airwaves, having also given television “Dynasty” and that magnificently bad miniseries “Hollywood Wives.”

At this point, a review of good trash-bad trash may be instructive.

A delicate balance exists between something merely bad and something so bad that it’s good. For example, ABC’s “Dynasty” was bad trash, but arguably not quite bad enough to be good trash, whereas “Hollywood Wives” underachieved so heroically when it ran on ABC 15 years ago--while including Anthony Hopkins in its cast of well-knowns--that disliking it was not an option.

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Happily, “Titans” has that kind of potential. Years ago, it would have been for Troy Donahue.

In a win-win scenario, the premiere features both rotten writing and rotten acting. In this android crowd, Perry King and Victoria Principal are De Niro and Streep.

Looking deeply into Chandler’s eyes, for example, you can see clear through to the back of his head. Watch Jenny have an affair with a guy named Billy who looks like a surfboard with hair. Catch Heather project all the allure of a scheming pizza waitress when learning her multimillionaire husband-to-be is too naive to sign the pre-nup. When she and Richard do get married, she doesn’t walk down the aisle, she slithers.

Chandler’s boozing brother, Peter, is a hoot, too, ever present with a glass soldered to his hand. Also lurking everywhere is Richard’s assistant, Samantha (Lourdes Benedicto), who affectionately fondles Chandler’s naval uniform when he’s not in it. No wonder Heather will do anything to destroy her. Do you hear--anything!

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There are no pretenses of grandeur attached to “Titans,” which is intended only as fun. Where does it travel beyond the premiere? No one is saying, but don’t be surprised if Richard turns out to be his wife Heather’s father. When you’re the cream of trash, you reach for the stars.

* “Titans” premieres tonight at 8 on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

* “Gilmore Girls” premieres Thursday night at 8 on the WB (KTLA-TV). The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for coarse language).

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Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be contacted by e-mail at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.


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