September 04, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

At this point in its corporate existence, Lifetime Television is the middle-aged TV version of pop music’s Lilith Fair: full to bursting with women exuding comradeship, mutual respect, and please-pass-the-Bioré-strips capitalism. Actually, Lifetime would kill for an institutional image as cool as Lilith’s, for unlike Sarah McLachlan, the net lacks hits — to say nothing of any attraction as upfront as the Indigo Girls or as funky as Missy Elliott. Although, Hera knows, the cable network is trying: Its new Tuesday strategy is to introduce three shows, Any Day Now, a Deep South drama starring Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint, followed by two sitcoms, Maggie and Oh Baby, in the idealistic but futile hope that women 18-49 are looking for alternatives to non-cable fare like Just Shoot Me and NYPD Blue.

Any Day Now is a showcase for fine acting overshadowed by the showcase: Potts and Toussaint portray childhood friends who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the early ’60s. Potts’ working-class Mary Elizabeth got pregnant, stayed in town, married, had three children, and is now engaged in a lively midlife crisis in which her husband is a boring slug, her kids unrewarding pains in the neck, and she’s going back to school in hopes of becoming a writer.

Toussaint’s Rene, witness to much insidiously casual racism growing up, got her African-American tail out of Birmingham as soon as she could and became a successful attorney in Washington, D.C., but, in the premiere, returns home for her father’s funeral and decides to stay. You see, Dad was a lawyer too, and Rene’s version of a midlife crisis is that high-powered singlehood has left her emotionally empty. She wants to continue her father’s smaller, more personal law practice — she wants, in the cliche of television drama, ”to make a difference.”

That Mary Elizabeth and Rene can pick up their friendship where it left off years ago is a crucial implausibility to Any Day Now, but it doesn’t make the scenes of that friendship — their awkward, tentative reminiscences and inquiries into each other’s personal lives — any less effective. The show is weakened by regular stops in the action for flashbacks to the two pals as cute little girls (played by Mae Middleton and Shari Dyon Perry). Potts and Toussaint are strong, subtle performers, and if Any Day Now seems like a faint echo of the 1991-93 civil rights drama I’ll Fly Away, it still suggests how compelling and nourishing — even in the diluted, slow-paced form here — the subjects of race and female friendship remain.

Sisterhood is powerful but sillier on Lifetime’s new sitcoms, Maggie and Oh Baby. Both are stylistic variations on The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, the late-’80s Blair Brown sitcom the network picked up for two seasons after NBC dropped it due to low ratings. They borrow from Molly Dodd‘s surreal dream-sequence techniques: Cynthia Stevenson’s single-pregnant-woman Tracy in Oh Baby directly addresses the camera and acknowledges to the viewer that she’s involved in a sitcom, while Maggie‘s Maggie Day (Ann Cusack, sister to John and Joan) imagines Melrose Place‘s Jack Wagner (in a sporting cameo) rescuing her from humdrum suburban drudgery.

Alas, Maggie positively hums with humdrummery; our heroine is practicing to be a veterinarian in one of the more cheesy-looking office sets on current TV, and the object of her tentative, guilt-ridden affection is a wisecracking vet (a poker-faced John Slattery, from Feds). Maggie is framed by scenes in which our protagonist sees a therapist (Francesca Roberts) to unload her feelings of infidelity; she wants to be talked out of a fling, but we’re meant to agree with the therapist that simply acknowledging those feelings will liberate Maggie. That is, if we can remember to tune in for a second episode of this well-acted but wispy show, which doesn’t seem likely.

Hokier than Maggie, Oh Baby is nonetheless more intriguing. Stevenson (Hope & Gloria) as single-marketing-executive Tracy has been artificially inseminated, which would seem to leave her boyfriend, Grant (Daniel Hugh Kelly), with a limited role in the series, and the faster the show pushes the stolid Kelly out of the picture, the better.

More promising are the exchanges between Tracy and Charlotte, played by the impeccably tart Joanna Gleason. In a better TV world, the boyfriend wouldn’t exist and Tracy and Charlotte would be the couple having the baby, making for a zippier pace and tone. Still, Tracy and Charlotte are fun friends to eavesdrop on. Caustic and smart, they are also pals united in the hopefulness that makes Tracy’s pregnancy surprisingly poignant — friends, in short, for a lifetime — or at least until NYPD Blue comes back on the air in October. Even Tracy and Charlotte would want to check out Rick Schroder. Any Day Now: B Maggie: C+ Oh Baby: B-

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