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WEDNESDAY // Are you ready for "Public Morals'?

On an otherwise quiet night of television, along comes Steven Bochco and a band of crotch-scratching, insult-heaving vice cops who think dirty language _ and laundry _ are funny. At least that's the premise behind the first episode of Public Morals (CBS), Bochco's first comedy since the unintentional riot known as Cop Rock.

Months before the debut of Public Morals, critics launched a debate over the gratuitous language and general filth of the series. Unlike NYPD Blue _ which has artfully justified its daring line-crossing and nabbed Emmys en route _ the first Public Morals episode seemed more like a frat party in overtime.

So strong is the outcry that it has almost completely overshadowed the move of The Nanny, NewsRadio and The Drew Carey Show to Wednesdays, as well as the return of thirtysomething star Ken Olin (in CBS's EZ Streets) and '80s ingenue Molly Ringwald (in ABC's Townies). Pearl, the highly touted new CBS comedy with Cheers alum Rhea Perlman, will fill in for an ailing Ink on Mondays until mid-October.

Still cagey on whether the most offensive lines will remain in the show's premiere, Bochco nonetheless defends the creative license.

"Television is losing viewership hand over fist," he says. "As unsettling as that probably is, I think it creates a climate of adventurism, which I applaud. We're having an awful lot of fun with (Public Morals), win, lose or draw."

In a study in contrasts, NBC's Men Behaving Badly combines questionable behavior, a likable cast and clever writing in a package likely to attract male and female viewers, despite the offensive concept.

"All guys are basically selfish and slovenly," notes one of the show's three stars, Rob Schneider (Saturday Night Live). "Most men are like big dogs," adds co-star Ron Eldard (Shep on ER). "They'll jump on you, but they'll run over the fence to chase things. We're freaks. We really do behave more badly than women."

To Justine Bateman (Family Ties), there's a degree of charm that even the worst-behaving man exudes to women:

"There's a real vulnerability to these characters. They're completely imperfect, and they're fumbling through life. It's amazing that they get dressed in the morning and can actually hold down jobs. Some people are like that."

BEST BETS

Comedy: Newsradio (NBC) _ Perhaps the strongest ensemble comedy on TV, this office of bruised egos and hilarious eccentrics rivals any real-life workplace. A close second and third: The Drew Carey Show, one of the few bright spots of last year, and Men Behaving Badly, possibly this year's.

Drama: EZ Streets (CBS) _ Viewers may have to work to figure out just where this stylishly filmed detective drama is going, but it's worth it.

For Families: Sister, Sister (WB): Double the fun for kids in this safe twin comedy now in its fourth season.

WHAT'S NEW

8:30 p.m.

Townies (premieres Wednesday, ABC, WFTS-Ch. 28): Molly Ringwald (Sixteen Candles) returns to TV more than 15 years after her brief Facts of Life stint, all grown up as a waitress spending her glory years in an unglamorous place: Gloucester, Mass. If the ensemble comedy _ co-starring the more-impressive Jenna Elfman and Lauren Graham _ sounds familiar, it is: Rent the movie Mystic Pizza.

Pearl (premieres Monday, CBS, WTSP-Ch. 10): Rhea Perlman trades her Cheers apron for a textbook in this likable back-to-school comedy with a strong supporting cast including Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) and Carol Kane (Taxi). Note: Pearl will air in Ink's 8:30 p.m. Monday timeslot until the week of Oct. 21.

Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher (already premiered, WB, WTMV-Ch. 32): Yet another in the overworked "funny teacher show" genre, this show features an adolescent would-be actor who substitutes by day in a junior high school. Guess what? It's not funny.

9:30 p.m.

Public Morals (premiere to be announced, CBS, WTSP-Ch. 10): If the raunchy, dreadfully unfunny pilot episode is any indication, hit-machine Steven Bochco has veered drastically off course. Attempting to do in cop comedy what the bleakly realistic NYPD Blue did for the detective drama, Bochco falls flat with lewd and lascivious behavior in this series about a division that tracks prostitutes, pimps and drunks.

Men Behaving Badly (premieres Wednesday, NBC, WFLA-Ch. 8): On the surface, another comedy about burping, scratching men and the women who love them. Only this one is smart and savvy about skewering the sexes, aided by a potent threesome of Rob Schneider (Saturday Night Live), Ron Eldard (ER) and Justine Bateman (Family Ties).

The Jamie Foxx Show (already premiered, WB, WTMV-Ch. 32): Wiseacre young comic Jamie Foxx gets his own show and all the marginally funny lines in this snore of a con-man schmoozer show.

10 p.m.

EZ Streets (premiere to be announced, CBS, WTSP-Ch. 10): The most interesting new drama of the year is also the most difficult to conceptualize. Ken Olin (thirtysomething) stars as a cop going undercover with a crime syndicate to clear his dead partner's name. Jason Gedrick (Murder One) plays an ex-con who wants to go straight, but can't. Drawing the two strangers together is Joe Pantaliano as a rough crime boss in a dying town.

Up next:BOX OFFICE

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