By Ken Tucker
December 10, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Couples, couples, couples—coupling and uncoupling the very concept of The Couple. That’s what you find flipping channels on any given Tuesday, as the title characters on Will & Grace, Dharma & Greg, and the central players on Sports Night all banter, dither, and seek solace in each other. Of this trio, Will & Grace is couple-ating with the most amusing inventiveness and variety. Creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick have overcome the dilemma of the show’s debut season — how long could gay Will (Eric McCormack) and straight Grace (Debra Messing) go without romances in their lives? — with a couple of shrewdly funny solutions.

The first is the simplest. As his pixie pal Jack (the booty-shakin’ Sean Hayes) might say, News flash: Will’s dating! Seeking to avoid generating DeGeneres comparisons, W&G now regularly shows us gay men flirting or making insouciant assignations, all without behaving as if The Weight of an Entire Lifestyle Choice is pressing on their nicely tailored shoulders. Grace has moved across the hall, which permits her to make frantic, pop-in entrances that convey her fresh desperation. If Will has a life, goes the subtext of recent episodes, why don’t I?

This led, on Nov. 2, to an I Love Lucyan gut buster in which Grace wore a bust-enhancing ”hydro-bra” to impress an old flame. Of course, the thing started to leak, leaving loyal Will no choice but to keep his hands clamped over his pal’s mammaries, lest they start gushing. James Burrows (W&G‘s regular director) excels at choreographing this sort of slapstick; he can make a vulgar joke seem like a sly witticism through economy of movement.

Less artful is the current run of Dharma & Greg, wherein we discover the problem of a contentedly sophomoric show when it moves into its third season: It all becomes a bit too much. Initially, D&G was a giddy adventure: As Dharma, Jenna Elfman lived up to an aspect of her surname by being a spritely, eccentric creature. We, like Thomas Gibson’s Greg, found her so beguiling we wanted to spend every moment — or in TV terms, a half hour every week — with her. But like a lot of whirlwind romances with free spirits, the novelty wears off, and qualities that once seemed charmingly nutty ossify into neurotically crazy, or just wearyingly nuts.

As if acknowledging this, the producers commenced the new season by taking the show’s premise — she’s a hippie; he’s straitlaced! — and upending it. When Greg decided to quit his job as a U.S. attorney and become as granola-goofy as his wife, you could almost hear the laughing gas hissing out of this bright comedy balloon. In fact, aside from a profoundly strange episode that found Dharma playing in a band that included Bob Dylan (30 years after The Johnny Cash Show, this is what Bob uses as a TV comeback gig?), nearly all recent D&Gs have featured tiresome role-reversal plots. The Thanksgiving episode — in which Greg’s impeccable mom (Susan Sullivan) cooks a predictably disastrous meal, complete with mussed hair and flour on her cheek to convey atypical exertion — definitively put this show into a slapsticky rut.

No such physical humor surfaces on Sports Night. Like W&G, Sports Night also has a regular director — this one is Thomas Schlamme — and he knows his job is simply to keep his characters moving through their TV-studio setting spitting out creator Aaron Sorkin’s logorrheic dialogue without bumping into a desk or a wall.

The second season of Sports Night has been uneven — Sorkin isn’t writing all the episodes, his attention well distracted by the increasingly addictive West Wing — but it’s had at least one all-time-great episode. On Oct. 19 guest star William H. Macy — playing Sam Donovan, a consultant brought in to boost the show-within-the-show’s ratings — faced down a trio of network execs. They tell Donovan they want him to eventually take over for executive producer Isaac Jaffee, who is making a halting recovery from a stroke (Sports Night‘s admirable way of working actor Robert Guillaume’s own stroke into the series). Up until Donovan was told this, we’d been led to believe he was a bloodless quisling who’d do anything to achieve a few ratings points. But Sorkin’s script had Macy deliver a beautifully low-key threat to destroy the careers of these two-faced suits if they tried to undermine Isaac’s authority. As a portrayal of office politics, this Sports Night should be shown at every business school in America.

As for the coupling up on Sports Night — well, the romance between coanchor Casey (Peter Krause) and producer Dana (Felicity Huffman) has proceeded far too slowly. I’d much rather see Dana hook up with Sam for a fling. The sparks might be brighter — after all, in real life, Huffman and Macy are married. W&G: B+ D&G: C Sports Night: B