J.C. Williams and Eddie Torres are the coolest cops on TV since Crockett and Tubbs of "Miami Vice," and like that series, "New York Undercover" is an engaging cop show with a texture all its own. But where "Vice" was about clothes, "Undercover" is about life.

The series premiered last week on Fox but the original pilot will air as the second episode, tonight at 9 on Channel 5. Malik Yoba as Williams and Michael DeLorenzo as Torres make an enigmatic if sometimes inscrutable pair, and the episode gives tantalizing looks into their troubled private lives as they pursue the head of a car-theft ring who employs teenage boys as his operatives.

Playing the mastermind, who hides behind a seemingly civic-minded youth center (shades of "Prime Suspect 3"), is none other than Clarence Williams III, who played Linc on ABC's "Mod Squad" in the late '60s and early '70s. Williams manages to be menacing without bombast; he simmers up a storm. It appears the bad guy will evade the cops pursuing him and continue his life of crime. But watch for a resolution that's twisted but oddly satisfying.

"Undercover" benefits tremendously from location shooting on real New York streets, mostly 110th Street and above -- Harlem and Spanish Harlem. This is not tidy Toronto masquerading as Manhattan. Though the series is shot on 16mm film, rather than 35mm, to save money, that adds to the convincing grittiness, and seems to make a sharp edge even sharper.

Gladys Knight will appear occasionally on the series as the owner of a nightclub at which, fortunately, she also sings. Last week Teddy Pendergrass performed at the conclusion of the episode. The first two or three minutes of tonight's show are without dialogue -- just action, tension and a terrific rappy, hip-hoppy soundtrack. Here is a program alive with the rhythm, as well as the tension, of its time.

DeLorenzo has haunted eyes like Ray Liotta's and a sweet, sly style. But when it comes to underplaying, Yoba almost overdoes it -- almost. At times the script is a touch too cryptic, and one cliche we could do without is the "blind" beggar who isn't really blind (that goes back to Damon Runyon and before). But in terms of substance as well as style, "New York Undercover" -- from "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf -- is one spiffy piece of work.

'Sweet Justice'

Everything about NBC's "Sweet Justice," premiering tonight on Channel 4 after the president's 9 p.m. speech, seems sane and sensible -- the show is dramatically correct -- and yet somehow it doesn't quite catch fire. Even a couple of sparks would be welcome.

Maybe it's because the pilot has so much premise-setting to do. Melissa Gilbert plays Kate Delacroy, a Wall Street litigator who returns to the South after a four-year absence for her sister's wedding and finds herself drawn into a custody battle between a rich man's dissolute son and his impoverished ex-wife.

She also runs into the aptly named Grace Battle (Cicely Tyson), a veteran of the civil rights movement who now heads her own Good Samaritan law firm. Having discovered you can go home again, Kate is soon embroiled in a tussle for her soul between Battle and Kate's father, James-Lee (Ronny Cox), who has his own law firm, plushly outfitted and catering to the well-heeled. He calls Battle "the woman who dragged us kicking and screaming into the New South."

Betcha can't guess which way our gal Kate is going to go. Oh, you can? Well, you've been a-watchin' too much of that there tee-and-vee.

Gilbert and Tyson don't have enough scenes together in the premiere to indicate how well they'll work as a team. The story of the bad rich boy, the mistreated mommy and the darling little 5-year-old boojums seems pat and predictable, and yet the writers appear to think they've taken some courageous moral stand.

Tyson brings her usual dignity to the project, but dignity isn't always terribly entertaining. "Sweet Justice" deserves the benefit of a doubt -- it's not shlock -- but it appears to have settled for merely being nice.

'McKenna'

Ah the romance of fly-fishing. It might seem that the movie "A River Runs Through It" had exhausted the subject (it certainly exhausted me), but TV loves exploiting what's already been belabored. Hence ABC's "McKenna," an outdoorsy drama in which the outdoors is beautiful but the drama deadly dull. It premieres after Clinton's speech tonight on Channel 7, henceforth airing at 9 p.m.

Chad Everett returns to series television looking old and gray but fairly fit as Jack McKenna, a proud but stubborn, crusty but lovable, smart but stupid cuss who runs McKenna Outfitters, a small-time outfit that takes city slickers on rafting trips and such in the Oregon outback. As the series opens, Jack's headstrong son Brick (Eric Close, potential teen heartthrob) returns home after two years of wandering in the wilderness as a would-be race car driver.

Jennifer Love Hewitt as Cassidy McKenna, Brick's sister, is glad to see him, but it turns out Dad always liked son Guy best, and Guy died when he slipped on a rock and tumbled into the rapids some time after Brick left home. Now Brick and Jack must try to reconcile their blah-blah-blah and learn to have more yeah-yeah-yeah.

Before it's all over, Dad is dangling from a rope bridge a la "Cliffhanger" and Sonny Boy is racing out to save him. Gosh, do ya think he'll make it in time? Where's Lassie when we really need her?

Gil Grant, who created the show and wrote the pilot, has said he based the premise on the relationship between patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, his favored son Joe Jr., who died in the war, and heir apparent John F. Well, good for him. But transposing it to the Oregon wilds doesn't make it new or fresh. More like hackneyed and trite.

"We are trying to get on with our lives," someone says at one point, as someone always does in TV shows like this. Viewers are trying to get on with their lives, too, and most will likely find they can do that fine with no help whatever from McCorny "McKenna."