That "The Fanelli Boys" is one of the better new comedies of the fall season tells you what kind of fall season it's going to be. The NBC show, previewing tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4, is loud, broad and so heavily reliant on shopworn ethnic stereotypes that it evokes creepy memories of "Life With Luigi," a whassa-matta-you sitcom from the early '50s.

In spite of all that, now and then the cast members get a chance to shine, and one can sense a bubbling undercurrent of geniality trying to break through.

The Fanellis are four Brooklyn brothers of Italian descent who, we learn in the pilot, are all at unraveling stages of their lives. Beefy Frank (Christopher Meloni) is dumped by his fiancee. Shifty Dominick (Joe Pantoliano) has been locked out of his apartment and his car has been repossessed. Meek Anthony is deep in financial ruin, too, and Cute Ronnie, the youngest (Andy Hirsch) has fallen for a much older woman.

So what's a mama to do? Mama, who is played by Ann Guilbert -- nearly 30 years ago Rob and Laura's cheerfully neurotic neighbor Milly on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" -- invites, or rather orders, them all to move back in with her. Since Anthony has mortgaged her house, she can't sell it and move to Florida as she planned to do, anyway.

"I'm not going to Miami," she tells them in the obligatory premise-establishing speech near the end of the show. "I'm staying here, where I can keep an eye on all of you until things get straightened out."

How long will that be? Producers Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, Mort Nathan and Barry Fanaro obviously hope the straightening out will take months, years, maybe until the end of the century. Unlikely. Like so many of this year's comedies, this one is burdened by a too-harsh tone and overly abrasive characters.

Pantoliano, veteran of many a major motion picture, brings his usual slippery charm to his role, but where is it written than any show about an Italian family must include one gangster or would-be gangster in the group? Meloni, for his part, makes Frank an ingratiating gigantic innocent.

As Father Angelo, a drop-in priest, Richard Libertini, the much-admired comic actor, makes a smaller contribution than one might expect. "Fanelli Boys" seems to have been inspired by the alla famiglia gusto of the wonderful movie "Moonstruck," but in the transposition to sitcomese, much of the warmth has evaporated.

Perhaps in future weeks, depending on how many of those there are, a way will be found to get it back.

'American Chronicles'

In the opening credits of "American Chronicles," the artsy-smartsy travelogue from David Lynch and partner Mark Frost, we're breathlessly whisked from coast to coast with dazzling, hallucinatory speed. This could be the prelude to a Marvelous Viewing Experience!

But it isn't. Actually, by the time the half-hour is over, you may feel you've seen nothing but prelude. The premiere, at 9:30 tonight on Channel 5, is a visit to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time, and if the pace seems confusingly hectic, that's partly because Frost originally intended the show to be an hour long.

Then it underwent radical surgery.

Not that there aren't arresting images. There are many. The quality of the camera work is superb. And the idea of doing an impressionistic report -- a docudreama, as it were -- is a good one. But few of the images get enough screen time to register, and the sensory feast is spoiled with pretentious narration by actor Richard Dreyfuss that is the audio equivalent of too much Roquefort dressing.

The program would be better off if, like Fox's video ve'rite' "Cops," it had no narration at all. In fact, "Cops" visited Mardi Gras last season, and though there was nothing very artsy about it, it was a bit more satisfying on its own terms than "Chronicles" is on its.

This, however, can be said for the Lynch-Frost team: They give a more authentically earthy view of Mardi Gras than TV usually allows. The program is titled "Farewell to the Flesh" and, although the breasts and buttocks bared on balconies and byways are electronically blurred, you do get a cheering sense of the raunchy abandon that overcomes nearly everybody during the annual wild rite.

At times, the program has a captivatingly ethereal quality, even though the score, incorporating snippets of Carl Orff's "Carmina burana," is a tad too grandiose. For all the expertise and ambition that went into it, however, "American Chronicles" comes across, finally, like a slick, fancy and real long commercial for a product you never quite see.

'Criminal Justice'

Forest Whitaker continues to give performances too good for the movies that try to contain them. In "Criminal Justice," an HBO film premiering at 9 tonight, Whitaker plays a poor inner-city man wrongly accused of robbing and slashing a hooker.

The alleged criminal soon becomes the victim, helpless fodder for the grinding wheels of justice.

Unable to express himself in a coherent, convincing way, the man gropes for words and phrases that might free him; Whitaker flails brilliantly. The problem is, writer-director Andy Wolk wants this to be An Indictment of the System, not just the study of one wronged wrong man, so the focus shifts away from Whitaker. When it does, the film's unrelenting tension unfortunately relents.

Wolk wants us to pity everybody, including the poor prostitute -- even though she is a liar and a crack addict. Rosie Perez gives it her all in the part, but how much can one sympathize as she shriekingly persecutes an innocent man? Jennifer Grey, an actress of only microscopic authority, starts out playing an assistant district attorney as a cold-hearted robot, but then in the last act we're supposed to find her an exploited victim too.

The only character and actor on a plane with Whitaker is Anthony La Paglia as the Legal Aid lawyer assigned to defend him, a part La Paglia plays with palpably desperate urgency. The lawyer advises his client to forget about using his alibi -- that he was home with his mother and son when the crime was being committed -- even though it is true.

Truth has much less value in this system than expediency. The judges want to dispose of cases as quickly as they can. The lawyers are encouraged to plea-bargain as a means of saving time. The innocent man is urged to plead guilty because the sentence is shorter than if he went to trial and lost.

He's innocent. But that turns out to be irrelevant.

Kafka and Orwell didn't collaborate on this nightmare, Wolk says; it really happens to real people. It's just too bad his film loses sight of the person whom, in this case, it's happening to, especially since Whitaker is so powerful in the role.

At the last moment, Wolk even starts confusing the viewer about the hero's guilt or innocence. The film starts out so well, then leads itself astray. Whitaker does his best to keep it right even when it insists on going wrong.


Weeks after it played on most other public TV stations, WETA finally gives an airing to "Edge," the pilot for a new arts magazine of the air produced jointly by WNET in New York and the BBC. Although sloppily hosted by the coy Robert Krulwich, the show has the kind of zingy smarts that public television sorely needs.

In the hour-long pastiche, at 10 tonight on Channel 26, two pieces stand out. Indeed, they leap out. The better of the two appears in the second half, when humorist and actor Buck Henry travels to fabulous, fabled Yorba Linda, Calif. (it means "Pretty Yorba," Henry explains) for a visit to the newly opened Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library & Birthplace.

"Ours is not a shrine," the director says with a derogatory nod to those other presidential libraries that have popped up hither and yon. As Henry discovers, to his sadistic glee, he has stumbled onto not a shrine but a theme park with Nixon in the pivotal role that another famous theme park bestows on a mouse.

In addition to gathering priceless comments from guides and visitors, Henry talks electronically with Senåor Six Crises himself. From a big-brotherly electronic screen in one of the display rooms, the looming Nixon, summoned at the push of a button, recalls a difficult state dinner in China. "I was suffering nausea and diarrhea," he confides for all the world to hear.

The other highlight occurs early in the program, when critic James Wolcott tries to dissect the phenomenon of bully comic Andrew Dice Clay. If that seems like practically a dead issue at this point, the comments of Wolcott and a gathering of astute opinion-holders bring it relevantly back to life.

Wolcott should have thought twice, however, when the producers suggested he be photographed waking up in bed.

At the end of the show, the current Philistine revolt against funding of the arts is treated in a fairly fresh and non-hysterical way. Because this report quotes from allegedly offensive works, however, and because some of the funding for the program came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it could engender a whole new stupid controversy of its own.

The Usual Suspects can complain that federal money should not be spent on a program about artists on whom federal money should not have been spent! Imagine the fur that could fly over that one.