There's nothing like a great big earthquake to make New Yorkers start behaving themselves. Apparently. In the CBS miniseries "Aftershock: Earthquake in New York" we do see some citizens looting stores and such, but mostly the townsfolk band together to face the catastrophic calamity: The Big Apple's esprit de core.

"Aftershock" is one of the best disaster movies ever made for television, produced on an impressive scale--even for a sweeps month spectacular--and with a collection of imperiled characters you may find yourself really caring about. The two-part nail-biter, airing tonight and Tuesday at 9 each night on Channel 9, more than makes up for last week's CBS special, a leaden bomb ironically titled "Shake, Rattle & Roll."

Obviously there's shaking, rattling and rolling aplenty, as well as inevitable aftershocking, in "Aftershock," though it's a pretty long time before the first really big rumbles. The three scriptwriters and director Mikael Salomon know how to build suspense, however, and they progress skillfully from strangely wobbling glasses of white wine--like the forecast of a dinosaur approach in "Jurassic Park"--to all-out hellzapoppin.

Once the earthquake hits, they pile thrill upon thrill upon thrill and are fairly artful about leaving you, and some poor stranded New Yorker, hanging prior to each commercial break. It's all, in a word, thrilling.

Adhering to disaster movie tradition, yet without seeming formulaic, the filmmakers concentrate on the fates of a few characters or groups of characters whose lives are disrupted along with the streets, buildings and bridges. These include Charles S. Dutton as the mayor of New York, who has not only the city to worry about but also his mother, majestically played by Cicely Tyson, who unbeknownst to him is trapped in the basement of a collapsed church.

Meanwhile the mayor's daughter Evie, a star lawyer in the public defender's office, had the bad luck to get on the subway just before the first shock waves. She's played by Lisa Nicole Carson, who looks more like a glamorous model than a lawyer but proves herself a capable actress just the same; she overcomes the handicap of gorgeousness--and what a burden that must be.

The fact that the mayor and his family are African American is never an issue, and in general, the multiethnic casting reflects the grand diversity of New York itself. To give Evie's story line an added edge, a fellow passenger on the subway car is a man whom she just got acquitted of murder. As the stranded subway passengers face new obstacles, the writers ratchet up the distinct possibility that Evie's client might just possibly be guilty as hell.

Among details that ring true to life is a certain amount of jurisdictional haggling after the quake hits. The mayor and his fire chief, played by Tom Skerritt, are political foes. But encouragingly, they mature during the traumatic events and in the end, nearly everybody pulls together. Don't laugh, it is possible. I know a lady whose hat blew away on Sixth Avenue once and at least a dozen people by her estimate rushed about in a joint effort to retrieve it. Which they did.

There are 8 million stories in the Naked City and "Aftershock" tells about 10 of them, and quite well.

Halest and hardiest of the imperiled New Yorkers is probably Dori Thorell, played to a pugnacious hilt by stalwart Sharon Lawrence. Dori blames herself for an auto accident months earlier in which her little boy Danny (Michal Suchanek) was injured. When the quake hits, Danny is trapped on an upper floor of his semi-demolished school. Mom makes her way to the school, and when cops and firefighters try to stop her from mounting her own rescue attempt, she shouts those immortal words, "That's my son up there!"

Okay, maybe they're not immortal, but the way Lawrence says them they are. Next thing we know, she's hoisting herself up on a rope as her little boy waits nervously in the shaky structure, which, yes, could topple at any moment! It may be shameless but it works. As it happens, Danny and his parents (Dad's away at a conference in Atlantic City) are transplanted Southern Californians. After one of the preliminary trembles, Danny tells his mother, "Chill out, Mom. You know we don't live in L.A. any more."

Also worth rooting for are an aspiring ballerina (Jennifer Garner) and a Russian immigrant cabdriver (Frederick Weller) whom fate brings together and no quake can put asunder. They search the city for her mother after her father dies. At first she finds the cabdriver annoying, then helpful, then--well, take a guess.

Few landmarks are destroyed by the special-effects department; the budget may be lavish by television standards, but it's still likely less than a tenth of a big-time theatrical disaster feature. As ads for the miniseries reveal, the Statue of Liberty falls off her perch in the harbor, and in fact too little is made of this when it happens. She just does a kind of bellyflop, shot tight with little background seen.

Then again, the statue has been destroyed in so many previous films (from "Planet of the Apes" to last year's "Armageddon") that it's getting to be a commonplace calamity--a sad fate, perhaps, for such a beloved symbol. The Empire State Building still stands, but the Guggenheim Museum isn't so lucky. Not all the special effects were completed in time for newspaper deadlines, but the ones that could be seen looked mighty impressive.

Destroying or mortally wounding New York has of course been a favorite gambit of filmmakers for many decades, whether it was King Kong pummeling an elevated train or the flooding of the city in "When Worlds Collide," in addition to more obvious recent examples like "Deep Impact."

Anyone who watches football or public affairs on Sundays has seen, many times, a life insurance commercial in which skyscrapers appear to topple into one another like dominoes.

One could, naturally, make jokes. When New York is declared a disaster area, an understandable reaction would be: "I thought it was one already." Or: "Of course it is. Did you ever try to get down 57th Street at rush hour?" What Frank Sinatra called, in the Kander and Ebb song that opens the film, "the city that doesn't sleep" is still in many ways the city that doesn't work, no matter how many Draconian clean-up efforts Mayor Rudolph Giuliani mounts.

Mayor Bruce Lincoln, as Dutton plays him, is accused of being a merciless cost-cutter near the start of the movie, but as it progresses he seems more and more compassionate and temperate, less and less like a real New York mayor.

Even if one accepts the movie's overall premise--and who's to say it couldn't happen?--there are a number of preposterous notes. The people trapped in the subway never see a single rat, much less the raging rodent hordes that would be there--to eat them! The ballerina is initially so dumb she walks up to a group of looters and tries to stop them, later declaring, "I just think it's wrong." Sometimes, too, the anarchy is poorly organized.

But deftly and with a certain finesse, the filmmakers push a bevy of emotional buttons, which is obviously more important in a TV film than special effects are. At the end of the daze, "Aftershock" is a fabulously entertaining ordeal.