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Airport drama `LAX' offers little that's exciting and new

Is it possible "The Love Boat" remains one of network TV's big influences? Many of today's airy dramas, such as "Las Vegas" and "North Shore," are fitted with regular "crews" who host new "passengers" each week, and they're set in vivid, slightly surreal locations. OK, so they don't all get to feature an oh-so-delightful theme song crooned by the one, the only, Jack Jones. Not every series can be so mightily blessed.

Tonight at 10 on Channel 7, NBC's "LAX" joins the primetime fleet, as a regular ensemble led by Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood presides over airport plots-of-the-week. Amid a cutesy rivalry between airfield chief Locklear and terminal manager Underwood, the staff deals with kooky crises such as drunken pilots and runaway dogs. Handsome Guy (Paul Leyden's airline supervisor) flirts with the ladies, Innocent Guy (David Paetkau's immigration clerk) falls for an unclaimed visitor, and Tough Chick (Wendy Hoopes's customs agent) badly needs a time out.

The strangest thing about "LAX" is LAX, Los Angeles International Airport. These days, an airport may be the least logical site in which to set a pretty "Love Boat"-like dramedy. While Las Vegas is still as escapist as the high

seas, airports have become places of paranoia, anxiety, long lines, and waiting, waiting, waiting. Flying isn't glamorous anymore. Yet the show is something of a romp, with semicomic story lines and quirky characters. Premiering only days after the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's asking us to forget about one of the most profound changes in the world. The show doesn't just ring false when its gleeful soundtrack accompanies people coming through security; it makes you wonder if you've fallen into a TV Land time warp.

The writers try to be contemporary on occasion -- tonight, for instance, with a plot involving a possible bomb in a suitcase. But the tone of the crisis is too playful to seem informed by any kind of reality. The same plot would have been handled the same way 25 years ago, when the Pacific Princess was happily chugging her lovers along toward "life's sweetest reward."

Underwood and Locklear make the show bearable, but just barely. She's not a great actress, or even a good one; her delivery is flat, even when she's playing nasty. She's plastic personified. But she has a unique TV presence, with the help of her tight facial features and ultra-blond hair. And it's fun to watch her try to evoke classic Aaron Spelling villains such as Joan Collins. She's watchable, in her way.

Underwood is, too, as he manages to stay likable no matter how petty and competitive his character gets. He has the warm calm to counteract Locklear's cool dudgeon. If only he could board a flight to a less terminally absurd TV locale.

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