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NORMAN LEAR'S `THE POWERS THAT BE' IS OUTRAGEOUSLY FUNNY SITCOM/SATIRE

Norman Lear is best known for his '70s sitcoms. Shows like "All In the Family," "Maude" and "Good Times."

Funny, but with underlying messages, these are shows that changed the face of television.Of course, it's been a long time since Lear had a hit. His "Sunday Dinner" bombed last year, and by his own admission it wasn't a very good show.

But "The Powers That Be" may just be Lear's biggest hit in more than a decade. (He's one of three executive producers.) It's certainly the funniest show to come to network television this season.

Actually, "Powers" has a good deal more in common with a non-Lear show - "Soap" - than it does with "All In the Family." It's a totally outrageous satire of the Washington scene, with broadly drawn characters

John Forsythe is perfectly cast as Sen. William Powers, an affable but dimwitted (did someone say Reaganesque?) U.S. senator who somewhere along the way has lost his drive and vision. He's not particularly interested in running for president, but his family and staff lust after the White House.

And as for the family and staff, in addition to naked ambition there's plenty of greed, avarice, downright nastiness and, deep down, a lot of shallowness. They include:

- Powers' wife, Margaret (Holland Taylor), an ice queen who enjoys slapping her maid around and is outrageously power-hungry. (Did someone mention Nancy Reagan?)

- His daughter, Caitlin (Valerie Mahaffy), an anorexic snob.

- His son-in-law, Theodore (David Pierce), a suicidal congressman.

- His grandson, Pierce, (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), who's cute enough to get away with a lot.

- His top-ranking aide, Jordan, (Eve Gordon), a dangerous, power-hungry beauty with whom he's having an affair.

- His press secretary, Bradley (Peter MacNicol), who suffers from a near-terminal case of stress.

- And the abused maid, Charlotte (Elizabeth Berridge), who suffers largely in silence.

And throw into the mix on Saturday's hourlong premiere (7:30 p.m., Ch. 2) is the illegitimate daughter he never knew he had. Sophie Lipkin (Robin Bartlett) is a loud, abrasive Jewish woman from New Jersey with the proverbial heart of gold, the product of a Korean War-era liaison.

The Powers family and staff are, of course, aghast. And anxious to get rid of Sophie quickly.

Sophie is just one of the problems facing the Senator on Saturday. A workman expires on his desk. (Look closely. That's Lear himself, who also directed the episode.)

It's also time for Powers to announce he's running for re-election. But he discovers that a popular, but now paralyzed, Super Bowl-winning quarterback is going to run against him.

All of this is played with sharp political humor, skewering the foibles of the real-life inhabitants of the nation's capital. The Powers' prime directive - be politically correct at all times.

(In the series' second episode, which airs next week, the Senator is accidentally shot. The family rejoices, immediately plotting to make it look like an assassination attempt to win sympathy. But when it's discovered Powers was shot in the behind, his wife grabs the gun and starts looking for a more "politically advantageous" spot to shoot him.)

The entire cast is extremely talented. And that elusive chemistry, which some shows never achieve, is obvious from the start.

If you're looking for something to be offended by, you can certainly find it in "The Powers That Be." After all, extra-marital sex, anorexia and depression hardly seem the subjects of comedy.

(One can almost hear the protests rising from some national group of anorexics already.)

But this is very broadly done - almost slapstick at times. And it is satire, after all.

Not to mention the fact that this is a sitcom that is very funny. And, while many shows seem to have forgotten this point, laughs are what comedy is all about.