By Ken Tucker
June 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

If you watch Kristin or The Beast, you’ll be hard-pressed to figure out why either of these shows — scheduled for limited summer runs, or as they so kindly call them in the biz, burn-offs — failed to make the cut as fall-TV fare. Not that they’re classics or anything: Kristin has a charming star but too few laughs, while The Beast has a swift pace, good actors, but the kookiest koncept you’ll ever tune away from. Still, what makes them worse than 80 percent of the rest of the stuff that gets — and stays — on the air?

Compared with, say, Yes, Dear or Just Shoot Me, I’d watch Kristin any old time — in fact, I watched four episodes without experiencing any significant pain, unless you count the time a Native American character set up a punchline about ”firewater” that’s about as funny as it is politically correct. The sitcom stars Tony award-winning fireball Kristin Chenoweth (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) as a personal assistant to a Manhattan real estate developer played by Jon Tenney (Brooklyn South). That concept is as old as the recently deceased Ann Sothern’s 1950s comedy Private Secretary — smart underling woman always saves the dim male boss’ bacon — but Chenoweth, working with writer-creator John Markus (Cosby), delivers lines both snappy and sappy with pinpoint timing.

But the element that makes Kristin unique — the singular sparkle of Chenoweth as an Oklahoma naif, a church-raised gal who won’t stand for big-city lyin’ and cheatin’ — does not extend to the rest of the cast. Beyond Tenney (who’s paid to do a Donald Trump knockoff), the show is filled with Italian and Latino ethnic stereotypes. Loading up on cheap-shot jokes is often a sign that a show doesn’t know what to do with either its star or its premise.

The Beast, on the other hand, is practically all premise: The title refers to a 24-hour cable news network and its insatiable appetite for — well, I’d say news, but The Beast’s gimmick is that it also turns its cameras on the news gatherers themselves: The WNS studio has cameras all over the joint, broadcasting the reporters and producers hashing out what they’re going to report. Thus, were the fictional WNS to actually exist, you’d switch it on and see station owner Jackson Burns (a goateed, sinuous Frank Langella) say, ”I’m very interested in the process” and that he just wants to ”feed [news] out there, raw.”

The Beast’s pilot has a frenetic pace courtesy of feature-film director Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward) and uses a newcomer to the network, a print reporter played by Elizabeth Mitchell (she was Laura Innes’ lesbian psychiatrist fling on this season’s ER) as our wide-eyed guide to WNS’ quirks. Jason Gedrick (The Last Don) is the show’s dashing, leather-jacketed anchor, but the best performance is given by Peter Riegert (Local Hero, Animal House) as a middle-aged-angry producer.

I like The Beast’s irreverence — it makes fun of both CBS’ Mike Wallace and its network’s own veteran newsman, Peter Jennings. I like the way it turns Paddy Chayevsky’s 1976 film screed Network inside out: Instead of presenting an anchor who can’t take the cynicism of TV news anymore, The Beast revels in exposing TV’s inner workings because its makers think that’s a form of honesty — of idealism, even. This extends to the oldest journalistic conundrum in the scriptwriter’s handbook: the debate over whether to air a live execution.

Again, as with Kristin, The Beast backs away from the effectiveness of its stars and goes for easy targets. In the pilot, Langella is the cold, calculating center of the show, but by episode 3, this beastly boss gets all paternal, telling a troubled Gedrick, ”If ever you do want to talk, I’ll listen.” Which means, in theory, that all of WNS’ viewership will have to listen too. Oh, I can just hear the thumb joints cracking on remote controls all over the country now.

At their best, though, you can see both Kristin and The Beast straining to burst the bounds of their genres; they fail, but they’re intriguing failures. Better Kristin than another Norm; better The Beast than another Dateline. Kristin: C+ The Beast: C+