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TV's "best night' has highs and lows

Fox's promos proclaim that "the best night of television on television is back," yet the Sunday lineup today is highly uneven: a clever King of the Hill, a mediocre The Simpsons, an amusing Malcolm in the Middle and a pointless X-Files.

Starting its third season, Emmy-winning Malcolm in the Middle keeps plopping its characters into embarrassing yet hilarious situations. Father Hal (Bryan Cranston) makes a foolish mistake while wearing a skimpy swimsuit, and hormonally challenged Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) ignores his dad during the crisis.

When the family goes on vacation, Malcolm is tossed into more turmoil: Will he be able to fish and ignore the diversion of pretty girls?

There's never any doubt about the cast, led by Emmy-nominated Jane Kaczmarek, who plays mother Lois with heart, style and frantic energy. The biggest oversight of this year's Emmys was that the merry Cranston was not nominated along with her and Muniz.

Kaczmarek also provides the best moments of the 13th-season opener of The Simpsons. She supplies the voice of strict Judge Harm, who blames Homer for Bart's joyriding in a police car and tethers father to son.

The chaining means that Bart has to drag Homer through a baseball game _ and that Homer drags Bart to Moe's bar. "If you can't cope, you'll wear the rope," Harm tells parents.

Marge, however, quickly tires of Harm's punishments and goes against them with humiliating consequences. This misguided episode makes both Simpson parents look irresponsible.

The sixth-season opener of King of the Hill manages the considerable feat of being more diverting than The Simpsons, and it does it with one of the hoariest bits of humor: the kick in the groin.

After a bully forces Bobby to eat dirt, Hank urges his son to learn boxing at the YMCA. Instead, Bobby enrolls in a women's self-defense course and kicks his way to detention at school.

Hank's efforts to break Bobby of the below-the-belt self-defense habit result in painfully funny comedy. The episode also makes something sweet and poignant of the wacky plot, thanks to Kathy Najimy's heartfelt readings as Hank's wife, Peggy.

Lucy Lawless, television's beloved Xena, provides the strongest moments in the two-part season premiere of The X-Files. She's scarily sexy as a siren who drags men to their deaths underwater.

But an X-Files without David Duchovny's Fox Mulder isn't a pleasurable thing to behold.

Robert Patrick does the best he can as tense, angry Agent John Doggett, who will continue Mulder's work. But the major action sequences in the two-parter, which concludes next week, are ridiculously staged.

Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is reduced to worrying about her baby son, who evidently can make the mobile above his crib swirl with no hands.

The main plot concerns an additive, a chlorine substitute, being put in the water supply. The subject is fitting: The X-Files is washed up.