The Internet further intrudes upon television with two very different new series: The Net, a weekly version of the 1995 movie, minus star Sandra Bullock, and Drudge, a weekly version of scribe Matt Drudge’s Internet column, the Drudge Report. And as it turns out, real life is the more colorful, more exciting choice here.

Brooke Langton—Samantha from Melrose Place—replaces Bullock in The Net, playing Angela Bennett, a computer programmer whose identity has been falsified and sullied by evil hackers who go by the name of the Praetorian Guard. The Guard is personified by Joseph Bottoms as thin-lipped baddie Trelawney; Angela’s chief ally is an unseen E-mail communicator called Sorcerer, whose voice via computer is provided by Tim Curry.

In the July 19 premiere, Angela escaped from Trelawney by tripping the sprinkler system and slipping away in the confusion. It was a typically implausible moment in this The Fugitive Goes Online show; her apartment is filled with computers, which presumably got soaked and ruined, while Trelawney just got a cold shower. Langton is good, suitably nervy and wisecracky, but the show carries the burden of having to work computer technology into dramatic scenarios every week, leading to a lot of dull scenes of frantic keyboarding. And the whole Praetorian Guard thing is leftover X-Files paranoia (“They can erase anyone!” squeals Angela). The Net needs to go offline to become a halfway-decent adventure series.

The adventures of Matt Drudge are, by comparison, a series of thrilling cliff-hangers: Can the maverick Net surfer transfer his wiseguy-newsmaker act to television? (During the opening credits, a voice says excitedly, “He’s the mod muckraker!” and you half expect that to be followed by Isaac Hayes’ back-up singers shouting “Shaft!”) Does Drudge have a viewer-attracting subject other than the Monica Lewinsky scandal? Will he ever remove his snap-brim straw hat?

My guess, in answer to that last question, is if he didn’t doff his chapeau to his debut-show guest, book agent Lucianne Goldberg, he’ll never take it off. Drudge owes Goldberg a lot, since six months ago she helped feed his notoriety and his anti-Clinton crusade with juicy tidbits about Bill and Monica, courtesy of her confidante Linda Tripp.

Matt easily filled his first show, on June 20, with Lewinsky lewdness; it was his next outing that showed where he’s taking Drudge. His first guest was Bill Thomas, editor of something called Capital Style, spouting off about how Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has a conflict of interest with ABC. Thomas asserted that Kurtz was paid by Nightline while reporting on the network, yet acknowledged that it wasn’t a regular gig and that Kurtz had disclosed the arrangement in print—all in all, pretty thin stuff.

The next segment featured two film reviewers from the New York Post (a newspaper owned, like the Fox News Channel, by Rupert Murdoch) analyzing the partial results of that weekend’s movie box office tally. Drudge, based in L.A., has always covered Hollywood in his online Report, but here he didn’t seem to have a clue how to crunch the numbers for Out of Sight and The X-Files movie, leaving the Post writers to gibber loud, empty nonsense.

Still, Drudge is an amusing television presence; like his hero, Walter Winchell, in the latter’s prime, he has a lean, hungry-wolf mien and spits out his words with staccato succinctness. He already knows how to hold the camera by glaring at it and then quickly glancing away with coquettish demureness, as if to say “Ain’t I a naughty boy?” Watching him twist politics to his own purposes, you understand why he has the establishment media annoyed and nervous—and bully for him. Anything that jolts the network anchors out of their above-it-all complacency is a good thing. But if he’s going to stick around, Drudge has to develop a tougher interrogative style, and decide whether he’s a reporter or a gadfly commentator. TV is less indulgent than the Net; if he doesn’t watch out, we’ll be watching the raker sink in his own muck. The Net: C Drudge: B-

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