With "The Greatest American Hero," Stephen J. Cannell transformed a comic strip premise into agreeably irreverent adventure spoof. He's attempted the same thing with "The Quest," a new ABC series, but the transformation doesn't quite take effect; the program is trapped somewhere between ugly ducklingdom and actual swanliness. To put it more bluntly, it doesn't work.

The first hour of the two-hour series premiere, at 9 tonight on Channel 7 (henceforth, the show will be a weekly hour, Fridays at 10) holds out considerable promise. Four people who appear to have nothing in common are systematically pursued by devious secret agents through the hithers and thithers of New York.

Each has won a free trip to exotic and unheard-of Glendora, a tiny kingdom near France, but this is actually a ruse by the rulers of the kingdom to get all four into the country. The evil pursuers are enemies of the crown who want to prevent the journey. So in the first hour, there are amusing chases and escapes, and Cannell's partner, Juanita Bartlett, the co-executive producer of the series and author of the premiere, gives the characters funny tics and traits and some incidental funny business to do.

But when they finally do get to Glendora, the show turns into a Saturday morning cartoon--preposterously contrived, precious and not in the least enticing. All four are related somehow to the royal family, and to decide which of them will inherit the Glendoran crown, they must set off on a quest the likes of which their forbears endured in the 13th century. It turns out to be a cross between a scavenger hunt and a nap.

The casting is felicitous. The four questers are Perry King, as a "photojournalist and sportsman" who is too good-looking for everyone else's own good (beneath the swell-fella exterior lies the consummate rat); the ultra-reliable Noah Berry (who worked, of course, on Cannell and Bartlett's "Rockford Files") as a retired Kansas cop full of salty counsel; Ray Vitte as Cody Johnson, an agile small-time con man; and Karen Austin as Carrie Welby, an assistant buyer in a department store shoe department who, when she gets a gander of the fancy trappings at the castle in Glendora, says, "If I'd known we were staying here, I'd have borrowed better luggage."

Plenty of cute touches help compensate for the artificiality of the premise, but eventually a larger, less benign cuteness -- pompous cuteness, if there is such a thing -- overtakes the whole undertaking. Also, some viewers may be justifiably offended by Vitte's portrayal of the shiftless Johnson. When in virtually any form of danger, his response is to let out high-pitched whoops and squeals that, while amusingly performed, suggest a throwback to insulting black stereotypes of the past. One half expects him to say, "Feets, don't fail me now."

In short, "The Quest" is the kind of treasure that probably ought to stay buried.