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CHAMPS

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THERE’S A LOT of backyard basketball being played on CHAMPS (ABC, Tuesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.); in this new sitcom, the thunk-thunk-thunk of a ball bounced on driveway pavement does the work of recurring theme music. Created by writer-producer Gary David Goldberg, the man who gave us Family Ties and Brooklyn Bridge, Champs is chockful of rueful one-liners about a quartet of grown-up pals and their old high school basketball coach. They hang out, trying to recapture the irresponsible joy of their youth and to escape the banal pressures of their lives now, in which wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, and kids are tougher opponents than any team these former champs used to face.

Timothy Busfield, his red beard even wufflier than it was in thirtysomething and Byrds of Paradise, is Tom McManus, married to law student Linda (Ashley Crow) and father of two children (Libby Winters and Danny Pritchett). His buddies are divorced father of two Vince (Sisters’ Ed Marinaro), the unfaithful, recently separated Marty (Saturday Night Live’s Kevin Nealon), and wealthy divorce surgeon Herb (Paul McCrane). Their ex-coach is called — gee — Coach (Ron McLarty).

Busfield specializes in charming arrested development; it’s his backyard hoop that gets a workout every week on Champs. The plots so far have all revolved around the ways men avoid emotional conflict and women confront it, whether it’s about Marty’s attempted reconciliation with his wife (a satisfyingly bitter Julia Campbell) or Herb’s hopeless attraction to a woman who gives him the cold shoulder (Dream On’s Wendie Malick delivered her usual smart, funny turn). There’s a lot of talk about how ”lucky” Busfield’s Tom is to have a solid marriage, and advice about life is dispensed in sports metaphors about how ”you gotta stay in the game.” Typical joke: Vince asks Tom’s wife what movie she’s going out to see and she says How to Make an American Quilt. Vince: ”Oh yeah? I was gonna go see that — then I remembered I’m a guy.”

Champs is the first TV series produced by DreamWorks SKG, the ballyhooed media company started by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. It has been given a plum position: right after Home Improvement and before NYPD Blue. This is the half hour formerly occupied by the on-hiatus Coach, so viewers are already accustomed to seeing a sports-based sitcom in this time period. Program scheduling doesn’t get much cushier than this.

But Champs doesn’t really deserve the success ABC is trying so mightily to ensure, because the show is predicated on a collection of sociological cliches that, whenever they aren’t annoying, are painfully obvious. Over and over, in jokes, speeches, and plot turns, the show says that what men really want to do is bare their souls and speak to one another with affection and intimacy, but they can’t because the culture has taught them this is ”feminine” — i.e., wrong. Well, du-uhh.

Like Brooklyn Bridge, Goldberg’s acclaimed but low-rated show about a middle-class family in the ’50s, Champs contains a lot of moral uplift and not enough laughs. Unlike Brooklyn Bridge, Champs is devoid of distinctive characters. Nealon’s Marty is a dimmer bulb than the rest (Nealon delivers his lines in an abashed monotone, as if still stunned that this is what a stint on SNL got him), but other than that, there’s virtually no difference between any of these chums. (For a guy who made his rep with the sharply whittled comedy writing of Family Ties, Goldberg has overseen a very dully written show with Champs.) In the show’s debut episode, Tom mused about the gang’s weekly poker game: ”It’s a cliche, I know — ‘male bonding’ — but these nights have become kinda special for us.” I doubt any weekly effort to watch Champs will be kinda special for anyone. Champs: C-