Television critics--who have named a series about mobsters who murder people for a living the best show on TV--have a problem with the violence in WWF wrestling.

They have crowned HBO's "The Sopranos" the very best that the small screen has to offer these days, commending its writing, directing and acting.

It's also one of the most violent series. But it's what we at The TV Column call brie-and-white-wine violence, the kind you can watch while sipping a crisp North Coast pinot blanc. WWF wrestling, on the other hand, is not. And for that, the critics and reporters gathered at the summer TV press tour here cannot forgive UPN, which plans to air "WWF Smackdown!" on Thursday nights starting this fall.

So today they gave UPN execs Dean Valentine and Tom Nunan their own personal smackdown.

"I'm hard-pressed to think the fact that ['WWF Smackdown!'] will show occasional blood is a danger to the republic," an exasperated Valentine, UPN's CEO, said about halfway through the drubbing.

The critics also went after the two for WWF's crude language. Now it's true, many of the same words are used in "The Sopranos"--but again, in a manner that goes well with pinot blanc.

The UPN suits actually held up fairly well against the onslaught for most of the session.

Wrestling is much more upscale and mainstream than it used to be, they said. Wrestling has become soap opera for young males, they said. "WWF Smackdown!" will be much tamer than cable's WWF shows and will be taped, giving censors plenty of time to give each broadcast a thorough going over, they said.

But then they overplayed their hand and claimed WWF wrestling wasn't sexist. "Do you mean to tell us that a program with a character named the Pimp who brings out his 'hos is not sexist?" one reporter asked.

Valentine said he wasn't sure that was sexist and that he'd seen that character on a number of different shows.

And that was pretty much the end of any rational conversation on the subject. Valentine was left answering many WWF questions by telling the group that there's a "disconnect between you guys and the people who watch" wrestling. Translation: You're too old; you don't get it; get over it.

On the bright side, the critics applauded UPN for being the only broadcast network with a quantity of African American actors on its prime-time lineup. The subject has been a hot topic since the NAACP announced it was considering litigation and advertiser boycotts to induce the big four networks to include more minority stars in their programs.

UPN has shows such as "Moesha" and the new "Grown Ups," starring that cute Jaleel White who used to play Urkel on "Family Matters" and who has grown up very nicely. Then again, UPN almost went out of business last season, and it had several series with African American actors then, too. In fact, UPN last season lost about one-third of its viewers. This season, on the other hand, Advertising Age has predicted that UPN's ratings will soar 21 percent, while it forecast drop-offs for every other broadcast network.

And, as one reporter suggested and Valentine acknowledged today, most of the reason for that predicted upswing: "WWF Smackdown!"

That's called dancing with the Devil, guys.

CAPTION: "WWF Smackdown!" airs Thursday nights this fall.