"Time of Your Life" chokes on its own cutes. It's a TV show that needs the Heimlich maneuver. One can assume that producers Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman kept sending back drafts of scripts for rewrite with such notes as "Not cute enough," "Make cuter" and "You call this cute?"

They've overdone it to a hideous degree in the premiere episode of the slack Fox series, airing tonight at 8 on Channel 5. Keyser and Lippman also produce "Party of Five," a once-absorbing weekly drama now on its last little legs, and this series is a spinoff of that. It transplants the character of Sarah Merrin, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, from San Francisco to New York.

Sarah's on a grand quest to find her biological father, whose identity she does not know. She's also on a quest to be cute, and in attempting to make her irresistibly so--twinkly-winkly, winsome and thensome--the writers and director make her insipid. Hewitt is indeed an adorable star with a heartening smile, but it would be better to deploy these qualities sparingly rather than pour them on like hot fudge over, well, more hot fudge.

In the first scene, Sarah, 20, arrives at a New York airport. To start the series on a note of implausibility and make her look like a dumb ninny, the writers have Sarah spontaneously blab the story of her life to a strange, silent man standing next to her at the baggage carousel. This is the writers' lazy way of imparting exposition, of course. Naturally, the strange man takes Sarah's openness as an invitation to score and makes a graphic pass at her. We could see that coming a mile off, but apparently she couldn't.

How dumb could she be? Is San Francisco some wee quaint village where she wouldn't have learned not to approach strange men in airports or other public places? Throughout the pilot, Sarah gabs up a storm to almost anyone who will listen. It makes no sense unless Sarah is supposed to be an irritating fool. But she's not. We're supposed to love her. If we do, it's only because Hewitt triumphs over the crummy material.

Her search for her biological father doesn't take long, which is odd considering the tiny bit of information she has to go on, mainly the address of the apartment building where she was conceived by her unknown father and now-deceased mother. It turns out Daddy is a theatrical impresario. She approaches him at--get this--a urinal in a men's room. Cute cute cute!

Pops turns out to be quite understanding and receptive--and rich! and famous!--once they get away from the urinals. He's tolerant, too, considering this girl comes out of nowhere and babbles like a torrentially babbly brook. "I'm trying to figure out who I am," she says--one of many cliches in the script. So when the father turns out to be decent and understanding, she reacts guess how? By crying and running away and planning a trip back home to San Francisco.

For some strange reason, Rosie O'Donnell has a cameo as Sarah's daddy's secretary, a pointless distraction. The regular cast also includes requisite hunk Johnathon Schaech as Maguire, a legendary guitar player who has trouble getting gigs and runs a record store in his spare time. The store still stocks vinyl LPs, bless its heart.

Sarah's roommate, Romy, a struggling actress enticingly played by Jennifer Garner, has a touchingly delivered speech near the end about looking for just the "tiniest" sign that New York is where she's supposed to be, and this is easily the emotional high point of the show, not that that's saying much. Lovable, huggable, almost sluggable Sarah meanwhile runs out on a balcony and shouts, "I'm wonderful!"

Oh shut up!

With Hewitt still charming even beneath all the tricky tics, "Time of Your Life"--no relation of course to a great William Saroyan play of the same name--could recover from the lame pilot and turn into a modestly intriguing hour. But only if the cruel and unusual cuteness can be kept to a humane and merciful minimum.