A surprise winner in the hotly contested Sunday-night prime-time wars this season is Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (ABC, Sundays, 8-9 p.m.). Pitted against the frequently brilliant Simpsons, the boomer-friendly Mad About You, and the frantically raucous Cybill, Lois & Clark has shown renewed superstrength in its third season, dominating its time slot nearly every week. And Lois & Clark has accomplished this by breaking one of the oldest rules in the Superman canon: Superman (Dean Cain) has not merely revealed to Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher) his secret identity as Clark Kent, but he’s also become engaged to her! He’s now such a dewy-eyed lovey-dove that he often finds it difficult to break out of a passionate clinch to fly off and rescue people.

Messing with the Superman myth is one thing; doing it so well is a shock. When executive producer Robert Singer took over Lois & Clark from series creator Deborah Joy LeVine at the end of the first season, he did something unusual: Instead of scrapping LeVine’s vision for the show, he took it even further. It had been LeVine’s notion to make the series into a love story between Lois and Clark, but when the initial ratings were weak, L&C tried to move in the direction of action-adventure, with more Superman and less Clark.

But Singer recognized the value in the show’s initial concept. Today’s TV audience is used to going to the movies to see elaborate special effects. The budget for a weekly series simply can’t yield state-of-the-art superstunts, and so the Man of Steel’s TV heroics were bound to seem lackluster. By making the romance a better-written, more involving aspect of L&C, however, the series has taken off. It’s the first Superman spin-off (including the feature films) that carries emotional weight.

These days, L&C plays like a screwball comedy, with stolen kisses, cute banter, and constant comic misunderstandings. I’m not saying it’s great screwball comedy, mind you; this show’s notion of witty byplay is to have Clark, frustrated that his superduties prevent him from smooching, say to his sweetie, ”Salmon swimming upstream haven’t had the mating problems we’ve had.” (This being a family show, I had to hastily haul out the old encyclopedia to conduct a discussion of fish spawning with the tykes in my house.)

But I did find it touching when Clark murmured, ”Lois, the best day of my life is the day you found out I’m Superman. No more secrets..” In a couple of phrases, all the silliness of secret identities became surprisingly poignant. Much credit must go to Hatcher and Cain for making the show more than a live-action comic book. Cain carries himself with a befitting physical confidence, but he also complicates his character with a vulnerable smile. Hatcher is always working against the good looks that have made her an Internet-downloading favorite, in order to convey both Lois’ steely ambition and smitten confusion.

In any given episode, the villains are the weakest part. In the Nov. 12 edition, Superman’s foes were a pair of red Kryptonite-toting sisters played by former Saturday Night Liver Mary Gross and former prominent actress Shelley Long; the week after that, a masked terrorist called Anonymous was revealed in the show’s nail-biting final seconds to be.Dave Coulier, from Full House. The dastardly types all cackle campily, but they’re not fun the way the adversaries on the old Batman TV show were. What Lois and Clark need now are bad guys as good as their love affair. B+

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

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