Orbach stars as rumpled detective; Weaver as a flinty MD

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The Law and Harry McGraw CBS, Sunday 9-11 p.m. Network preview of new detective series before it moves to regular Tuesday time slot. Can a skillful exercise in stereotypes manage to breathe new life into the detective format? Viewing this long preview produces a decisive yes and no.

Yes, you'll find something new in its approach, because some of the people - especially Jerry Orbach in the title role - are sharply imaged.

No, you won't find much originality in the way the story is told or in the scenes' lighthearted atmosphere. Harry Law, in fact, fairly rings with the memory of detectives past and present, as viewers of the series ``Murder, She Wrote'' (where he was introduced) will note.

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The middle-aged private eye shambles through this intricately plotted story of murder and blackmail speaking Sam Spade-ese and looking like a taller Columbo in his rumpled clothes.

But the plot is spelled out with a measured power that this episode's two-hour length allows for - a luxury that regular episodes won't have.

And it's a story full of wild cards. Two men face bankruptcy and decide to kidnap one of the partners' own wives to blackmail her rich father. It takes a kaleidoscope of tricks, twists, and double-crossing to bring it all to its clich'ed ending - where Harry confronts the villain with the details of his crime.

Along the way, some of the relationships form lively contrasting patterns that promise to linger in future shows. Against Harry's seedy image, for instance, there's a lawyer named Ellie - whose office is across the hall from his - with an oh-so-elegant accent.

The show works overtime to etch her state of refinement against Harry's seediness - in one shot she's seen walking down the street holding a long-stemmed white rose against her white gown - and her high-class connections draw Harry into the case. But their relationship is not strictly business, and a younger love interest is supplied by Harry's pretty young niece-helper and a yuppie tax lawyer working in Ellie's office.

Every cleverly crafted detective story deserves one viewer carp: When Harry describes the murderer's tactics as ``strictly amateur night,'' the killer - who's sitting in the room - visibly glowers. You almost expect him to leap up and shout, ``It was not!'' But most of the action is competently if routinely staged.

Buck James ABC, Sunday, 10-11 p.m. Premi`ere of new drama series.

Buck James's face is flinty with intransigence as he says, ``I care about work - quality work.''

Flintiness, in fact, is what Buck James is all about. He's defending his choice for a key job at the hospital where he works: a woman he knows can do the job. But he has to fend off another candidate - a rich fund-raiser's son.

``The truth of the matter is, you could be replaced,'' suggests the administrator.

``At least I'd get in some decent fishing,'' says Buck, with the kind of homely reference that defines his character. A cowboy at heart, he likes to wear a Western hat to work, where his honesty clashes with slick administrative attitudes.

His image as a renegade surgeon in charge of the trauma unit - detailed by explicit medical shots - is based on a real doctor. But without Dennis Weaver's skills to make this title character credible, the show would get almost nowhere with its interesting effort to put a forceful eccentric into a standard series format. (And hospitals are about as standard as you can get on TV, even though ``Buck James'' is the only new prime-time medical series this season.) Through subtle takes and unexpected though wholly credible reactions, Weaver avoids the clich'es that lurk in many of the otherwise routine scenes.

His anti-establishment role in the hospital puts him in such sharp relief that the program's scenes of his life at home as a rancher - apparently designed to show the frontier roots of his independence - fail to add much more to his character. And one ranch bit - a subplot about his son's dog as a calf-killer - is like a fugitive clip from ``My Friend Flicka.''

But another side of Buck is well captured: domestic problems and personal relations with his ex-wife and two children.

A breakfast confrontation with his 22-year-old daughter - who comes home pregnant but unmarried - is searing. It shows how quickly Buck's confident drawl can disappear in the face of life problems that don't respond to the medical heroics he's famous for professionally.

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