When in the course of human events . . . No, wait.

Seldom if ever in the annals of art . . . No, wait.

If you see only one television show this year, if you see only one television show in your entire lifetime, then . . . No, wait.

Sometimes critics get carried away. But let's state it flat out: NBC's Bette Midler special, "Ol' Red hair is Back," at 10 o'clock tonight on Channel 4, is, quite simply, dare we say it, quite simply, a masterpiece - an unqualified triumph that floods the heart, quickens the pulse, relieves tension, makes teeth white, bombards the inner springs of the psyche with lacerating veracitics and LEAVES YOU LIMP . . .

Some people will be carried away by NBC's Bette Midler special, "Ol' Red Hair is Back," at 10 o'clock tonight on Channel 4. They will call it a television masterpiece, a glorious triumph, a gloriously triumphant television masterpiece! The Golden Fleece and the Holy Grail rolled into one! A cause for celebration! Four Stars! A Hit! A Smash hit! What a show, what a night, what a gal!

There'll be none of that kind of nonsense around here. Let's just say that anybody who though Bette Midler's loony camp pagentry could never be translated to television will be proven wrong and that people who thought it should never be translated to television will have a lot of fun writing nasty letters to the network tomorrow morning.

From the fringe she came - a singing career launched in a men's steam bath, cultivated in small clubs, expanded into concerts, hit records, and now TV. Unlike many from the fringe, Midler has managed to make it into the mainstream with most of her raunchy eccentricities intact.

"A peaceful island somewhere in the South Pacific," Natives chant chuggalugga. A giant shell washes up or shore. The natives open the shell. ANd there she is, this vision, this madenna, this vixen, this harlecuin, this harridan, this England . . .

"Whaddaya know, girls," says Bette Midler to her Harlettes, "prime-time television! A major network! They said it couldn't be done. But here I am, living proof that the moral standards by which this country lives - have died."

She lies down on the stage: "this is my favorite position." She promises viewers "an hour devoted to the twin deities of truth and beauty," gesturing toward her breasts. "Talk about your big events!" she says.

Bette Midler is the funniest sexy woman since Mac West. No wait, the funniest sexy woman since Lola Montez. No - the funniest sexy woman since Lucrezia Borgia.

And when she sings, she combines the sweatiness of blues with the regality of a diva, the sunniness of Jeanette MacDonald with the earthiness of Janis Joplin, the wit of Oscar Wilde with the pragmatism of William James - melodramatics on a Jolsonian scale, irreverence on a Swiftian scale, and intellectual weight on a Toledo scale.

It doesn't even matter that her guest star, Dustin Hoffman, mutters. Or that director Dwight Hemion doesn't always keep up with her. Or that she becomes hoarse while singing "Hello, in There," to Emmett Kelly.

No, it doesn't matter. Nothing matters but the Bette Midler special. They might as well give up after this one. They might as well lock up television and throw away the key. Nothing will ever be able even to hope to compare with this crystal golden moment of . . .

Oh, forget it.