Networks are not comfortable with critical success. It worries them. Even if they have that all-important ratings success, too, they still don't really like being praised for quality fare. Too much of such talk, they fear, will scare the public.

It's important to Brandon Tartikoff and his programming staff at NBC, therefore, that they score big Nielsens now and then with truly meretricious tripe. Hence, "The Highwayman," a new action series that seeks to redefine worthlessness and that premieres at 8 tonight on Channel 4.

Sam Jones stars as the Highwayman and the irritating Australian Jacko (of the Energizer battery ads) plays his squawking sidekick in this sanitized "Road Warrior" rip-off set, says narrator William Conrad, in "a world just beyond now, where reality rides a razor-thin seam between fact and possibility."

The fact is, "Highwayman" is possibly the worst Tartiplop ever, and this from a programmer who has given the world "Misfits of Science," "Knight Rider" and "Manimal."

Our nominal hero and his pal crimefight around the town in huge, swollen trucks with bulbous noses out of "Dune" -- vehicles cumbersome and lethargic and not the stuff of kinetic thrills. The series is executive-produced and cocreated by Glen A. Larson, whose career goal always seems to have been to under-stoop Stephen J. ("A-Team") Cannell.

But the premiere goes beyond derivative paralysis to outright repulsiveness. Writer Mark Jones inserted racist and sexist touches. The bad guy is a giant corporation with a Japanese mastermind at its helm and, says one character, an "Asian philosophy" of doing things.

What it does mainly is kill people and bring them back to life as soulless bioniks. The Japanese mastermind even has a speech near the conclusion that is an update on the "die, Yankee dog" harangues of Japanese caricatures in World War II movies.

Then there's the antifeminist theme. The Highwayman takes pleasure in abusing his female boss (Jane Badler, formerly of "V"). First he humiliates her at a fancy restaurant and orders her date to the bathroom. Later he tracks her down at the ballet, plucks her from her seat, carries her outside and throws her into a fountain.

"The Highwayman" is for people who find Sylvester Stallone off-puttingly intellectual.

Negative reviews of shows like this are sported like feathers in the caps of network executives. They feel cleansed when trounced. They probably read them to their pals in the business. Vice presidents get promoted if there are enough such notices.

That plot about turning normal humans into synthetic amoral zombies -- could that explain where all those vice presidents come from in the first place?

'Our Hospitality'

The opportunity to be thoroughly charmed and delighted presents itself rarely in television, perhaps anywhere, but tonight "Great Performances" on PBS offers just such a chance. The 1923 Buster Keaton comedy classic "Our Hospitality" has been restored and polished up and given a richly deserved showcase, at 9 on Channel 26.

Keaton was reaching his pinnacle when he codirected and starred in this subtle, gentle comedy about a family feud in the Blue Ridge Mountains (the "Canfields" and the "McKays") and how it affects two innocents who fall in love. They do a lot more falling than that, of course; in the film's most celebrated sequence, excerpted last November on that wonderful "American Masters" tribute to Keaton, they dangle from a log at the edge of a waterfall.

In the climax to the scene, shot near Lake Tahoe, Buster swoops in on a rope and rescues his love, played winningly by Natalie Talmadge.

Well before that, the two make the journey south from New York aboard a clunky, rinky-dinky train that is more like three skinny stagecoaches wobbling along a track. It moves so slowly that the same dog chases it for the entire journey. If a mule is grazing stubbornly on the tracks and cannot be moved, the tracks can.

The conceits are disarming and lithe, the sight gags brilliantly timed, and Keaton a haunting hero who keeps the world's straightest straight face. His baby son, Buster Keaton Jr., appears in the film's prologue, set in 1810. Then it flashes forward to the Broadway and 42nd Street of 1830.

Carl Davis, who's written new scores to several silent films, composed an appropriately delicate one for "Hospitality." The title is derived from the Canfield credo: They will not shoot a McKay so long as he is a guest in the house. That leads to a droll sequence in which Buster does everything in his power to keep from walking out the door.

Chevy Chase makes an able and earnest host for the program, part of a series of "The Silents" to be shown from time to time. Chase says the print is in "virtually flawless condition," and it does look good. The credits have been redone, however, so as to allow curator Raymond Rohauer, who holds the rights, to plaster his name across the screen as many times as possible.

The restoration and presentation of the film, an exercise in Americana, was undertaken by England's Thames Television. Meanwhile, the American Film Institute concentrates its TV profile on an annual gala saluting a big Hollywood celebrity. Something is amiss.

When things go amiss in a Keaton film, however, it is always on purpose. The print isn't the only thing in great shape. So is our man Buster.