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`M.A.N.T.I.S.’ ISN’T GREAT, BUT IT HAS GOTTEN BETTER

SHARE `M.A.N.T.I.S.’ ISN’T GREAT, BUT IT HAS GOTTEN BETTER

The new and improved "M.A.N.T.I.S." debuts tonight on Fox (7 p.m., Ch. 13), and there have been a lot of changes since it aired as a TV movie earlier this year.

A lot more changes than just getting rid of the dorky suit donned by our hero in that pilot.Now that "M.A.N.T.I.S." is a weekly series, he's not only got a slick new suit, but the show itself is sleeker.

If you saw the "M.A.N.T.I.S." pilot either of the two times Fox aired it, forget it. Or at least forget a lot of it.

The M.A.N.T.I.S. is still the first black super hero on network television. He's still played by Carl Lumbly, and he's the alter-ego of scientific genius Dr. Miles Hawkins, who's confined to a wheelchair until he puts on that technologically fantastic suit, which gives him super powers.

Then Hawkins/M.A.N.T.I.S. goes out as the world's most powerful vigilante to fight bad guys.

Other than that, just about everything has changed. Sam Hamm and Sam Raimi, the producers of the "Batman" movies who worked on the original "M.A.N.T.I.S." pilot, are still listed in the credits as executive producers - but it's in title only. They have no involvement with the series.

Executive producer James McAdams and co-executive producer Bryce Zabel are now in charge, and they've made wholesale changes.

To begin with, with the exception of Lumbly the rest of the cast of the "M.A.N.T.I.S." movie has been jettisoned. And, while that original cast was almost entirely black, the four regulars in the weekly version include two black and two white actors.

Hawkins' best friend - and fellow scientist - is John Stonebrake (Roger Rees, who was Robin Colcord on "Cheers.") And, for comic relief, there's Taylor Savidge (Christopher Russell Gartin), a bike messenger dude who figures out who the superhero is and becomes sort of a M.A.N.T.I.S. assistant.

The only other regular character who's black is Lt. Leora Maxwell (Galyn Gorg), who doubles as the a legal nemesis for M.A.N.T.I.S. and a love interest for Hawkins.

Not that these changes detract from the series. As a matter of fact, they improve it with a tighter, more focused cast and direction for the show.

The producers have kept the reasons behind the creation of M.A.N.T.I.S. the same - Hawkins was paralyzed by a bullet during Los Angeles-type riots in the show's fictional city, Port Columbia. The crime was never solved, and the scientist is now rather bitter and reclusive.

But, unlike the original pilot, tonight's revamping shows us the creation of the super suit - and thus the superhero - from scratch. It's something that was definitely missing the first time around.

We see that Hawkins was simply trying to develop a system so that he and other paralyzed people could walk again, and that the superhero that resulted was sort of an accident.

And the character of Miles Hawkins has lightened up a bit. In the movie, he was so bitter and morose that he was forbidding. He's been humanized this time around.

There's also more of an attempt to bring some humor into "M.A.N.T.I.S." It's not an entirely successful attempt, but it is another improvement.

"M.A.N.T.I.S." remains a live-action cartoon in many ways. And it's full of cartoon-like violence that's violence nonetheless.

M.A.N.T.I.S. himself tosses people around but doesn't kill them. He's got a weapon that paralyzes the bad guys.

Tonight's plot is about a super-virus that Hawkins developed years earlier for the Defense Department - a virus that was supposed to have been destroyed but which has fallen into unscrupulous hands. And in the course of the episode there are not only shootings, beatings, hangings and bombings, but some rather distasteful autopsy scenes.

In other words, parents with young children should beware.

WHAT'S IN A NAME? So, why is the name "M.A.N.T.I.S." punctuated in such an extremely annoying manner for people who have to write about it?

Because of lawyers, of course.

"We have to use the periods for legal reasons," said co-executive producer Bryce Zabel. "It had something to do with there being a prior comic book that someone else had published years ago that's out of print and people own it or something like that."

Of course, once they put those periods in then all those letters had to stand for something. Something that even the people in charge of "M.A.N.T.I.S." can't keep straight.

The original concept was Mega Amplified Neuro-Transmitting Interceptor System. Not easy to remember.

"Someone asked me the other day what it stood for and I just rattled off, `the Mechanically Augmented Neuro-Transmitter Interactive System,' " Zabel said. "And whoever was on the other line said, `Oh great. Sounds good.' And wrote it down and now I'm seeing it pop up everywhere.

"So regardless of what it used to be, I think that's what it is now."