The American short story has been down but not out since the decline of mass circulation magazines. Publishers would rather have novels, and so would Hollywood.

Public television, however, has begun to catch on to the notion that a brief story, skillfully told, is both economically feasible and quite in keeping with the presumable mad pace of contemporary life.

Tonight at 8 on Channels 26 and 22, the Great Performances Series presents three by Irwin Shaw under the title "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses."

Each is entertaining, literate, thoughtful, evocative and, like any good short story, elusive enough to require a bit of afterthought.

In the title story, a husband and wife (Jeff Bridges and Carol Kane) stroll down Fifth Avenue in New York on a pleasant Sunday morning, surveying their life together. That is, she is surveying their life together. He is looking at the pretty girls.

"You look at every woman that passes, don't you," she observes after a while.

"You're exaggerating," he says pleasantly.

"No, you look at every woman that passes."

Short stories like these don't really have plots -- it is, rather, their conversations that thicken. This one thickens nicely, until hubby finds himself almost kicked off the gravy train.

Bridges and Kane go nicely together. He's tweedy and full of false innocence. She's got a wonderful voice -- rather like Betty Boop, with laryngitis.

"The Monument," which follows directly, is set in a taproom in 1938. Behind the bar, Charles Durning is polishing an Old-Fashioned glass and listening to the owner describe the economic benefits of using cheaper whiskey.

Durning's character is just a bartender, but he has a plaque on his cash register that reads Mike McMahon -- In Charge." He listens to the boss, and he doesn't like what he hears. The customers won't like cheap whisky. His boss points out that he just works there -- he doesn't have to drink it.

"I do not work only to make a living," the bartender says. "I am interested in making other things."

Is a good bar a monument to it bartender? And what are the limits of pride?

The third story, "The Man Who Married a French Wife," regards the return to Paris of a successful New York attorney in 1960. He is on six-weeks' vacation -- somewhat reluctantly -- with his war bride, and hardly aware of the Algerian crisis of that year. He speaks no French, regards France as something to be flown over in a B-17 and is the picture of confident complacency.

That is, until a robust but sorrowful-eyed French journalist -- a former friend of his wife's -- enters his life.

"What do you specialize in?" asks the American husband.

"War and politics," growls the Frenchman.

Short stories speak softly but carry a big kick. And they do it on television, too.