YOU may have seen them darting crazily in and out of traffic along gridlocked Manhattan streets. Or you may have noticed them standing in office reception rooms - lean, tough, and helmeted - waiting tensely for someone to sign a receipt so they could plunge back into the maelstrom.
They are New York's bicycle messengers, plying their trade with the fervor of wartime couriers delivering secrets that can save the regiment. And starting Jan. 4 they will have a prime-time series of their own: ``Double Rush'' premieres on that date as part of a revamping of the CBS schedule.
The network wants to attract younger viewers with more comedies, according to CBS Entertainment president Peter Tortorici. Hence two other new CBS comedies will also be joining the lineup: ``Cybill,'' starring Cybill Shepherd, on Monday; and ``Women of the House,'' with Delta Burke and Teri Garr, on Wednesday.
``Double Rush'' has an action-oriented format unusual for a comedy series. The show has a Runyonesque patter of twangy New York dialogue that captures the street-smart tone of its setting: a downtown Manhattan warehouse from which bicycle messengers are dispatched to pick up and deliver vital business bundles. The show has a skilled cast headed by Robert Pastorelli (Eldin in ``Murphy Brown'') as Johnny Verona, owner and boss of the service called Double Rush.
The show also has a major problem, and it can be described in one word: ``Roseanne.''
The 9 p.m. time slot to be filled by ``Double Rush'' puts it opposite the the ABC sitcom starring Roseanne Barr, a powerhouse that at press time ranked 7th for the season. Its Jan. 4 episode, ``Rear Window,'' finds Roseanne and her husband seeing more of their neighbors, through the bedroom window, than they care to.
Does the prospect of competing with a show like that affect the way ``Double Rush'' is made?
``Not really,'' says Stephen Nathan, co-creator and co-executive producer of the new series, and one of its chief writers. ``CBS has a limited number of spots to put comedies in at this point, and they're really trying to build an entirely new evening. Monday night is a much more female-oriented audience. Our show on Wednesday is a little more male-oriented. We just put it on and hope people will find us.''
The electrifying bicycle-action shots introducing the show each week were taken in New York with a quick-cutting verite style that practically puts the viewer's nose to the pavement. It's more than a visual theme: It helps justify the frenetic atmosphere in the shop, reminding viewers why people are acting the way they do.
The result can be seen in the opening episode, which builds to a race that will determine which service gets a big account: ``Foley's best messenger versus ours. Winner takes all,'' as one character puts it.
``You're the only man I know who can beat a fax machine,'' says Verona to his ace courier, Hunter (David Arquette). It's one of the show's typical gag lines, whose main virtue is sharpening the edge of excitement, creating the kind of tension not often encountered in a sitcom. You wouldn't find it, for instance, in the more insightful and clever atmosphere of ``Frasier's'' penthouse.
Where did the idea for such a wild format come from?
Diane English - co-creator and co-executive producer of ``Double Rush'' and also creator of the multiple Emmy-winning CBS series ``Murphy Brown'' - came to Nathan and asked him to develop the format with her. At the time she was living in New York, Nathan says, and she and her husband had been dealing with bicycle messengers a lot.
Creating the show involved real-life researching of the messenger business. ``Before writing, I lived with these guys for a week,'' says Nathan. ``I hung out at the different messenger services to get a feel for the family, the society that they create. If you're a little bit of a bad boy or a renegade or you can't get a job someplace else, you can usually find a niche as a bicycle messenger. You have to be good physically, courageous, and you have to be a little bit nuts.''
To retain the rhythm of the streets, ``Every second or third episode has some exterior bicycle footage,'' Nathan explains. ``And we have to go out and create New York City in Los Angeles. We bring in buses and cabs. We use Universal and Paramount studios, and a street here in our CBS lot in Studio City.''
The goal, says Nathan, is ``to capture the lives of these people. Everybody someplace inside themselves feels a little bit of a misfit. I hope this show dramatizes that little part and lets viewers relate to it.''
Will enough viewers do so? Nathan says CBS has given the producers an order for four more scripts, in addition to the 13 episodes now in the can.
Still, facing ``Roseanne'' is a tall order. Events after Jan. 4 hold the answer.