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Not a Prayer

Some have taken offense at NBC's animated "God, the Devil and Bob," but it's less blasphemous than your average mall at Christmastime.

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My Rockford and my redeemer: Beelzebub (voiced by Alan Cumming) and God (James Garner).  

After George Burns smoked this part like a good cigar, why shouldn't the Almighty sound like Rockford, look like Jerry Garcia, and behave like Sigmund Freud in a Santa Claus suit? Are we really to suppose that the Dead aren't Grateful? God, the Devil and Bob (Tuesdays; 8:30 to 9 p.m.; NBC) got more publicity than it deserved when nine NBC affiliates, including Salt Lake City and Pocatello, Idaho, refused to air a sneak preview. The animated sitcom, a visual cross between Dr. Seuss and Crusader Rabbit, stars James Garner as the voice of a God so disappointed at the botch we've made of His handiwork that He contemplates scrapping the whole experiment and starting over from scratch; Alan Cumming (Cabaret, the TV Annie) as a Prince of Darkness who sees his chance to stage a campy comeback; and French Stewart (Third Rock From the Sun) as "Bob Alman," the Detroit autoworker asked to change God's mind by doing something nice. It's less offensive to organized religion than your average Christmas-sale shopping mall and a distinct improvement on your average televangelist.

In God, the Devil and Bob, God likes lite beer and Pop-Tarts but not answering machines. Bob worries a lot about his worthiness ("I drink, I swear, I download porn off the Internet!") but finally agrees to talk to his 13-year-old daughter about her period. And the Devil, besides guzzling margaritas with a purple face, has wired Hell so that Guy Lombardo plays "Auld Lang Syne" 24/7 (and in an upcoming episode, Martha Stewart will redecorate). We aren't talking about The Satanic Verses. We aren't even talking about God's Grace, the Bernard Malamud novel in which the Lord was so annoyed at atom bombs ("They tore apart my ozone, carbonized my oxygen, acidified my refreshing rain. Now they affront my cosmos") that He turned on the faucet of a second Flood. Or God Knows, the Joseph Heller novel in which David demanded an apology from the Big Guy for that messy business with Bathsheba. Not to mention City of God, E. L. Doctorow's latest, in which, according to Einstein, "the bending of starlight" is the first sacrament (and a doubting-Thomas Episcopal priest is so fed with up with Christianity and so in love with a female rabbi that he converts to Judaism).

Some of us have more important things to worry about than Salt Lake City or Pocatello -- the existence of evil, for instance. Of accordions. And mimes.

In fact, the other new NBC sitcoms are generally more interesting. In M.Y.O.B. (day and time to be announced), the latest entry in the Why-We-Hated-High-School sweepstakes, Katharine Towne is a teenage runaway whose search for the mother who abandoned her for a commune and a Website lands her on the Northern California doorstep of Lauren Graham, who just happens to be not only her aunt but also the highly strung, sexually repressed acting principal of the local high school, which gives Towne a chance to talk to the camera about what we're seeing and what we're not, as if My So-Called Life had merged with The Opposite of Sex. The inside jokes about other NBC programs, especially Law & Order, are genuinely funny.

In Daddio (Thursdays, starting March 23; 8:30 to 9 p.m.), the Michael Chiklis who has been missing from action since the demise of The Commish reappears as the New American Male who quits his job as a restaurant-supply salesman to take care of their four children while his attorney-wife, Anita Barone, goes back to work after prolonged motherhood -- and we are willing to put up for a while with the clichés because Chiklis has always seemed to be essentially a family man even when he was shooting people. In Battery Park (Thursdays, starting March 23; 9:30 to 10 p.m.), Gary David Goldberg returns to network TV with a happy-go-lucky cop show that includes Justin Louis, Elizabeth Perkins, Bokeem Woodbine, Jay Paulson, Jacqueline Obradors, and Frank Grillo as NYPD not-so-blues, plus Wendy Moniz as a guest-star Mafia princess, as well as the usual zany wiseguys and hookers -- not to be missed by anybody who ever mourned the passing of Barney Miller.

Battery Park is also, sorry to say, more engrossing than The Beat (Tuesdays, starting March 21; 9 to 10 p.m.; UPN), the new, much-anticipated Tom Fontana-Barry Levinson cop show that seems to have discarded most of what made Homicide special (complicated adults dealing with equally complicated questions of race, class, and personal complicity in an urban nightmare), in a feverish stab for the youth demographic (Mark Ruffalo and Derek Cecil as partners on uniformed patrol by day, and sexual studs at night on New York's Lower East Side). When the non-cops -- Heather Burns as Mark's arsonist bunny-hug, Poppy Montgomery as Derek's med-school fiancée -- are more compelling than the guys in blue, we know we're not in Baltimore anymore. Only the pedigree of the executive producers and the neediness of the wrestling network will bring me back for another month, but that's tops.

Meanwhile, this is an official letter of forgiveness to Jennifer Love Hewitt. All the affection she earned in Party of Five and then squandered in its whiny spin-off, Time of Your Life, is hereby restored. It was brave to the point of foolhardiness for her to have volunteered to star in The Audrey Hepburn Story (Monday, March 27; 8 to 11 p.m.; ABC). It is triumph enough that she doesn't embarrass herself in a role that requires her to re-create snippets of Roman Holiday, Sabrina, and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Almost always, she sounds like Hepburn. Often enough, she looks like her, especially when gussied up by Hubert de Givenchy (Marcel Jeannin) -- those hats! After an hour, I stopped casting in my own head (Calista Flockhart? Or, maybe, Maryam D'Abo?) and settled down to enjoy a game try and the many memories that try evokes. And it was smart of teleplaywright Marsha Norman to put Hewitt in a habit for a brief reminder of The Nun's Story -- on whose African location Hepburn first developed the empathy for wounded children that led her eventually to UNICEF -- but to stop short of My Fair Lady, which might have broken our hearts.

Also shrewd, it seems to me, is not attempting to find a Fred Astaire impersonator. Keir Dullea as the Nazi-sympathizing dad who abandoned her in occupied Europe, Frances Fisher as the loyal mom who tried always to protect her and usually succeeded, Eric McCormack as the Mel Ferrer who fathered her children and massaged her career, Lenie Scoffie as the Colette who saw her as Gigi, and Michael J. Burg as the Truman Capote who had to be cajoled into loving her Holly Golightly are all serviceable. But Swede Svensson as Gregory Peck, Gabriel Macht as William Holden, and Ray Landry as Humphrey Bogart indicate just how lamely risible casting by rough appearance can turn out to be. Nevertheless, so faithful as well as slyly subversive is Hewitt's performance as the long-necked beauty who never made a bad movie (except for TV) that you'll end up worrying she doesn't eat enough.


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