In the midst of all the new shows and the returning shows comes a series that is returning new: "China Beach," the earnest and artful Vietnam drama whose season premiere tonight daringly goes off in two directions at once.

The two-part episode, tonight at 9 on Channel 7 and next Saturday at the same time, opens in 1985, as a man who has lost a leg gets out of a car on a rainy day in Boston. He's on his own personal reconnaissance mission, a search for ghosts he knew in another place and time.

We return to that place and time through a flashback: Vietnam, 1966. "China Beach" heroine Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delany) is only two weeks into her tour of duty and six months out of nursing school, still green enough to turn really green when a fellow doctor says of a bleeding patient, "Oh, a gusher!"

But the two-parter concentrates on another character: Emmy winner Marg Helgenberger as K.C., the accommodating entrepreneur who becomes inconveniently pregnant by one of her many military clients. Next week, later in 1966, she has a going-out-of-business sale. But she doesn't exactly go out of business.

What happens to the daughter she gives birth to, and the identity of the serviceman who takes custody, turn out to be a very good story, even by the high standards of this series. The script, by executive producer John Wells, is inventive and engrossing, and director John Sacret Young, the other executive producer, makes the time passages effortlessly fluid.

Helgenberger gets to elaborate on K.C. in credible, provocative ways. McMurphy, meanwhile, dresses up like a man for a staff party. Even with a mustache, Dana Delany is still the sexiest thing on television, and nobody casts meaningful glances more meaningfully.

These two episodes of "China Beach" also bring Brian Wimmer's winning portrayal of Boonie into the forefront. It's an ideal pairing of actor and role -- both seem to personify whatever is the precise opposite of "neurotic." Wimmer is one of this series's most worthwhile discoveries.

Another emerges in next week's episode: Guest star Christine Elise as Karen, the grown-up daughter of K.C. Elise has deftly poignant moments as a young woman in search of an identity. The situation sounds melodramatic, but "China Beach" once more manages to steer itself through a maze of potential cliches.

"The older you get, the more the past trails after you," says Dr. Dick Richard (Robert Picardo). These episodes aren't about what Vietnam did to people so much as they are about what war does to people.

We get only tiny glimpses, for now, of what happened to McMurphy after the war. Her case will be detailed in a recently filmed episode called "Fever" that was directed by actress Diane Keaton. No air date has been set.

It's always gratifying when a cherished returning show upholds its high standards. It's even more impressive when a series that's been around awhile risks charting new territory and then succeeds at the mission.

If, as is likely, this is to be the last season for "China Beach," it's not going out with a whimper. Even TV this good is rarely this good.

'Good Grief' Stu Silver, creator of "Good Grief," says that all three major networks took turns rejecting his proposal for a sitcom about a freaked-out funeral director. As it happens -- and it seldom does -- those networks all had the right idea.

It's Stu Silver who had the wrong one.

Fortunately for Stu, and unfortunately for nearly everyone else, where major networks feared to tread, a minor one now clumsily stumbles. "Good Grief" premieres on Fox tomorrow night -- 9:30, Channel 5.

Howie Mandel stars as wacky Ernie Lapidus, former con man, TV evangelist and candidate for Congress (talk about three strikes) who finds himself running a mortuary with his stodgy brother Warren.

"In three months you have turned the family business into a circus," Warren complains. "That is absolutely not true," says Ernie. Just then, a clown runs into the room. Ho ho!

But it gets worse. Ernie talks about having "stuffed" a female corpse. "You don't think that I would mount a grown woman arbitrarily," he says to Warren. "I have never mounted a woman in my life," Warren replies.

This is the level of humor -- does it even qualify as "humor"? -- on the show. By no means is a lousy, tasteless script redeemed by clever, zesty performances, either. Mandel seems stranded between the serious acting he did on "St. Elsewhere" and the maniac intensity of his frantic stand-up routines.

He doesn't go far enough in either direction to salvage all or part of "Good Grief."

Tom Poston will be added to the cast as comedy insurance starting with next week's episode. But there's every indication so far that even if one could miraculously summon forth Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, "Good Grief" would be a lost cause.

Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck couldn't save it, put together.

Rock bottom isn't actually and officially hit by any of the comedy lines or situations, horrible though they are. No, it occurs late in the show when writer Silver, realizing he has created a completely unsympathetic clod in Ernie Lapidus, tries to salvage him with shots of Ernie helping a wan little tyke bury his pet hamster in a cemetery plot.

Hey, Stu. Heave that hamster into a dumpster. And throw "Good Grief" in after it.