Television reviews for the week of May 4 -- We take a closer look at this week's TV shows

Television reviews for the week of May 4

NBC, SAT., MAY 5, 8:30-9 P.M.

The executive producer and director of 13 East is Scoey Mitchlll, who’s also a stand-up comedian and actor I’ve always found to be smart and funny (you might remember him as Rhoda’s friend Justin during one season of Rhoda).

It’s surprising, therefore, to see how dumb 13 East has proven to be. A sitcom set on the 13th-floor, east wing of a big-city hospital, 13 East is little more than a poorly written friends-at-work show. There’s an older, maternal nurse (Diana Bellamy), described in the NBC press releaseas ”tough and crusty” — yummm; a younger red-headed nurse (Jan Cobler), whom NBC calls ”sultry and sassy”; and a dimwit nurse (Rosemarie Jackson). Collapsing into incoherence here, NBC calls her ”intelligent but common-senseless.” If only the show were as funny as the press release.

13 East is one of those time-warp sitcoms in which characters still shrug and say, ”Hey, different strokes for different folks.” A big laugh line is ”Do you get splinters in your fingers when you scratch your head?” Say it ain’t so, Scoey.

The characters never emerge as people; they’re just actors struggling to deliver their lines as humorously as possible. It becomes depressing to watch their effort. And you know what ”depressing” starts with: D

SHOWTIME, SAT., MAY 5, 10-10:30 P.M.

Midway through this cheerfully relentless half-hour, Jeff Altman utters yet another crazy-man non sequitur (”My life, my life, for a big bowl of Mueslix”), then whirls around and says to a stunned man in the audience, ”These aren’t jokes, friend; I just stand here and go *#$@in’ nuts.”

Altman is his own best critic: Anyone who has caught his stream-of-consciousness act on David Letterman knows that he doesn’t tell jokes with conventional punch lines; at the same time, Altman isn’t a cornball loony in the venerable tradition of Rip Taylor or Gallagher.

Until he made his in-crowd breakthrough as a Letterman guest, Altman was best known as part of one of TV’s legendary flops: Pink Lady, a surreal stinker of a variety show starring a much calmer, more boring young Altman and Pink Lady, a Japanese singing duo; the show lasted a month in 1980 but lives forever in camp history.

Nowadays Altman’s style suggests he had a breakdown during his Pink Lady days from which he never has quite recovered; he’s gone genially bananas. The result is very uneven but often very funny.

There’s a lot of Jonathan Winters in the way Altman will chatter quite amusingly and coherently one minute, then abruptly shift into vulgar absurdity. Running up to the Showtime cameraman, Altman thrusts one of his nostrils at the lens and pants, ”Do you see a large, goat-headed zebra in my nose?” I know, it doesn’t sound funny on the page, but trust me. . .

Altman’s performance was taped at Atlanta’s Funny Bone comedy club, and all of his best bits are here, including extensive quotations from his jittery, hostile father (”I’ll lay you out like a wholesale carpet, buddy. . .”). If you’ve never seen him, you deserve to be jolted. B+

NBC, SUN., MAY 6, 9-11 P.M.

Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again is the thirtysomething version of Archie: Archie (Christopher Rich) is an earnest lawyer, engaged to be married; Veronica (Karen Kopins) is four times married, four times divorced, still yearning for Archie; Betty (Lauren Holly) is a sweet second-grade teacher; Jughead (Sam Whipple) is an addled psychiatrist; and Reggie (Gary Kroeger) is a greedy entrepreneur who says things like ”The ’90s will be about buying luxury items with money you don’t have.”

To Riverdale and Back Again is, in short, an exceedingly odd comedy-drama. One minute it’s slavishly faithful to the jokey tone of the comic books on which it’s based; the next, it’s drastically revisionist.

Everyone in this Archie movie is undergoing a crisis: Archie isn’t sure he wants to get married; Veronica is miserable that she can’t sustain a marriage; Betty wants to be a great novelist, not a schoolteacher; and Jughead goes into literal catatonic states — now that’s depressed.

The acting here is, under the circumstances, exemplary. Christopher Rich, who starred as Prince Charming in the cartoonish The Charmings, is a likable Archie, and Karen Kopins brings out the subtext that was always lurking beneath the squeaky-clean Archie comics drawn by the great Dan DeCarlo — namely, that Veronica was always an object of lust.

Note: Music fans should be aware that the movie contains no fewer than three versions of the Archies’ 1969 bubble-gum hit ”Sugar, Sugar,” including the wonderful original and an execrable rap version. C-

ABC, SUN., MAY 6, 9-11 P.M.

This made-for-TV movie has the most banal premise imaginable — a woman endangers her solid marriage by having an affair. The script is full of florid, overheaaed dialogue (”I won’t live without passion; I can’t!”), and it stars Meredith Baxter-Birney and Nick Mancuso, two TV actors who haven’t previously evinced much depth or range.

But sometimes soap opera exerts a certain undeniable power, and I’m surprised and pleased to report that Burning Bridges is interesting, well made, and at times quite moving.

Baxter-Birney is Lynn, a chipper mom with two young sons; Mancuso is Peter, your standard rumpled college professor. Lynn falls for a doctor named Gus (Derek de Lint).

At first, Lynn and Gus’ affair is discreet, romantic, and sexy — clearly, if you’re going to have an affair, this is the one to have, right down to the dripping little candles ringing the bathtub while the lovers squeeze and lather.

But then, at home one night, looking at Peter’s big, dumb, innocent face while he’s grading term papers, Lynn is overcome with guilt, and she tells him about Gus. Well, she’s not quite overcome with guilt: When a shocked Peter asks her what she wants to do now, Lynn blurts out, ”I want to keep on seeing him.” So she does.

This is Burning Bridges‘ first unexpected departure from conventional TV- movie morality, which holds that Lynn should suffer immediately and profoundly for her sin. But for a while Lynn scampers backkand forth, from home to Gus, Gus to home.

To be sure, Burning Bridges does eventually turn into the pious tract for monogamy that prime-time demands — Peter starts drinking too much, the children become very upset, the neighbors start calling Lynn a tramp, and Gus, it turns out, has a wife (Lois Chiles) who is super-steamed.

But along the way, Judith Paige Mitchell’s script uses the conventions of the romance novel to raise issues about women’s sexuality that don’t usually surface in prime-time. As Baxter-Birney’s Lynn yells at her husband at one point, ”Men do this all the time without any controversy!”

This line, in fact, is the start of a great scene, in which Peter’s answer is ”But I was always faithful to you!” — that is, forget your confused, complicated feelings, babe, and think about me.

Peter the prof even reads a few lines of Emily Dickinson to her, to the effect that you have to suffer for any pleasure you get out of life. You end up understanding why she needed to get away from this earnest dullard.

Playing an ordinary woman overcome by extraordinary emotions, Baxter-Birney uses her usual sad-eyed, washed-out expression to great effect in Burning Bridges. B

PBS, MON., MAY 7, 8-9 P.M. PART 1 OF 5

Worldwide Plaza, on Manhattan’s West Side, is a skyscraper that looks like a big, thick cotton-candy-pink pencil. From its glinting copper crown to its tidy courtyard entranceway, it’s a charmer of a building you never get tired of looking at.

I know all this for two reasons: Skyscraper is a fascinating five-part documentary about Worldwide Plaza’s construction, and I look at this building every day out of my New York office window.

But it’s not my neighborhood chumminess with Worldwide Plaza that leads me to think Skyscraper is interesting — after all, bad documentaries can make nice buildings boring.

No, it’s the meticulously straightforward approach that producers Thomas Friedman and Karl Sabbagh have taken that makes Skyscraper engrossing. You’ll watch the creation of a 47-story, 770-foot-high building step by step, from the architect’s plans drawn up in 1985 to the day the building’s first tenants — the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather — moved in, in May 1989. There’s as much drama here as in a season’s worth of Dallas.

Skyscraper talks to everyone: the mild, articulate architect David Childs; developer William Zeckendorf Jr., who throws a few immensely entertaining fits when his cowering underlings don’t have the right figures at a budget meeting; and construction manager Dominic Fonti, who leaves boardrooms to don a hard hat to chew out ironworkers who are behind schedule.

In succeeding weeks, Skyscraper also will give those ironworkers their due, interviewing some who are Mohawks living on a reservation near Montreal.

By explaining the technical problems clearly, Skyscraper gives us a solid lesson in architecture; by introducing us to the people who took part in this massive endeavor, Skyscraper entertains us as well. A-

USA, WED., MAY 9, 9-11 P.M.

Cheesy and manipulative, Buried Alive isn’t by any stretch a good TV movie, but, hey, compared with the USA Network’s previous offerings this season, it’s Citizen Kane. Or, given that the plot is derived from Double Indemnity, it’s Citizen Cain.

In Buried Alive, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a bored, greedy platinum blond who gets her doctor-boyfriend (William Atherton) to tell her how to poison her husband (distinguished National Lampoon chairman Tim Matheson). Once the dope is dead, the babe and the doc plan to collect hubby’s insurance money and blow town.

But things go wrong. The doctor’s choice for a poison is rather too exotic — the toxin in a puffer fish. (I can hear you now: ”Oh, no, not another puffer-fish-poison movie!”)

But Matheson doesn’t drink enough of the martini spiked with puffer-poison. Sure, after a few sips, he flops to the floor like a flounder, and he stays | out long enough to be packed into a coffin. But after the funeral, Matheson wakes up, only to find that he’s. . .he’s. . .buried alive!! AAAUUUWGGHHHH!!

Yeah, it’s unbelievably corny, but the always-good Leigh is wonderfully cruel and slutty, Atherton is terrifically cynical and creepy, and Matheson is superbly scared out of his mind when he realizes he’s in a pine box six feet under.

Once Matheson gets himself out of the ground, he takes a good, long shower and then exacts his revenge on wifey and her lover. Buried Alive, a mean- minded little potboiler, isn’t bad. B-