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'Sex and the City' clones offer cheap thrills

''Sex and the City" continues to be a convenient descriptive touchstone for critics. As in, ''This new show is 'Sex and the City' with lesbians," or ''That new show is 'Sex and the City' in Birkenstocks." That's because so many TV writers and producers still use the classic HBO series as a model around which to design their potential Nielsen hits.

Yeah, they clone it.

Which brings us to ''Emily's Reasons Why Not," the new ABC sitcom starring Heather Graham. It's not half bad, but then it's not even a quarter original. The romantic comedy, which premieres tonight at 9 on WCVB (Channel 5), is such an obvious rip-off of ''Sex and the City" that you'll find yourself drawing comparisons for the whole half-hour. See Graham doing her best Sarah Jessica Parker as a fashion-conscious New York editor. Hear her plaintive voice-over narration; meet her loyal best girlfriends, including a gay man; and, of course, get a load of her Mr. Big, an emotionally unavailable writer played by Mark Valley.

It's ''Sex and the City" with Rollergirl.

Tonight, in a plot that ''Sex and the City" did at least once, Graham's Emily dates a hunk she suspects is gay. First of all, he uses bronzer on his body and has his own subscription to Martha Stewart Living. ''Holy implied homosexuality!" exclaims Emily's snarky friend Reilly (Nadia Dajani). And the guy practices Brazilian jujitsu, which looks suspiciously like a rehearsal for a gay porno. Watching a room filled with sweaty guys writhing on the floor, Emily and her pals, including the swishy Josh (Khary Payton), have a major gaydar moment together.

It's all mildly amusing, and blessedly lacking in the cackle of a laugh track. And there's a promising villain in Emily's back-stabbing co-worker, a nastier-than-thou woman named Glitter Cho (Smith Cho). She taunts Emily about her disastrous love life, strutting around the office and barely trying to hide her fangs.

But still, it's too bad Graham didn't find a fresher, more distinctive TV vehicle. In addition to her career in movies such as ''Boogie Nights," she has done fine sitcom work on ''Scrubs" as a ditzy psychiatrist. She's a welcome TV presence, able to deliver comedy without becoming tightly wound and shrill -- something too many comedic TV actresses do to keep up a jaunty sitcom pace. She's got a little-girl affect, but not cloyingly so. And she never seems vain or showy, even though her Emily is the center of attention not only for viewers but also for her friends, who seem to exist solely to process her men issues.

''Emily's Reasons Why Not" is the first half of an hourlong programming block with ''Jake in Progress," which returns tonight at 9:30 on Channel 5 after a short first season last year. The two shows seem born to coexist, and perhaps they were, thanks to the shrewd demographic wizards at ABC. Many TV insiders were surprised when ABC renewed John Stamos's poorly rated comedy, but maybe the network thought the show would gain strength coupled with a similar product. Because if ''Emily's Reasons Why Not" is a daughter to ''Sex and the City," ''Jake in Progress" is its son.

Yep, ''Jake" is ''Sex and the City" with dudes.

Stamos's metrosexual PR agent dates the most beautiful women in New York and has adventures with his cartoonish best buddies. And he has his Ms. Big, a former fiancee named Annie who haunts him years after their breakup. Like ''Emily's Reasons," ''Jake" is a derivative and forgettable romantic sitcom, but breezy and easy to take. Not a bad one-night stand, but definitely not TV's next Big thing.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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