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So, which medical drama is better, "Chicago Hope" or "E.R.?"

That's a popular question to ask TV critics these days. And this critic's answer isn't particularly satisfying.I don't know.

Judging one show against the other is like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. The two are so different that comparisons are all but impossible.

Yes, both CBS' "Chicago Hope" and NBC's "E.R." are hourlong medical dramas. Yes, they both air on Thursday nights at 9 p.m. (on Ch. 5 and Ch. 2, respectively). Yes, both have attractive, talented casts and superior writing.

But the shows set out to do entirely different things.

The goal for "E.R." is to create a fast-paced, wham-bam hour in which patients speed through the emergency room like they were at the Indianapolis Speedway.

The focus is largely on the patients, and the lives of the doctors and nurses are revealed relatively slowly, being subordinate to the medical cases they're involved in.

"Chicago Hope," on the other hand, focuses on the lives of the hospital staffers. The characters are strong and fascinating.

Here, it's the characters who are at the forefront, and the medical cases are a stage on which those characters act and react.

"E.R." and "Hope" are at the opposite ends of the medical spectrum. The former is set in the mayhem of an emergency room, while the latter is at a state-of-the-art facility with doctors who are the best in their fields.

The two shows are at the same end of the quality spectrum - they're both great TV.

At this TV critic's house, the VCR is definitely going to be taping on Thursdays at 9 p.m.

"Chicago Hope" and "E.R." both make their regular time-slot debuts tonight, but that's not all that's new on the tube.

Here's a look at three more series that are premiering:

"DUE SOUTH" (7 p.m., Ch. 5): Maybe one joke isn't enough.

And one joke is about all "Due South" has.

The premise is fairly simple. Paul Gross stars as a Canadian Mountie who make Dudley Do-right look impure. He's teamed with a Chicago detective (David Marciano), a product of the streets who can't quite believe his squeaky-clean counterpart.

When "Due South" aired as a TV movie last spring - a movie that CBS repeated last week - the concept was fresh and funny.

There are flashes of that humor in tonight's hourlong series premiere, but the joke is already starting to wear a bit thin.

"Due South" has some potential, but it's going to be a struggle to keep it fresh.

"FRIENDS" (7:30 p.m., Ch. 2): This is yet another of a large crop of new shows that isn't bad, but isn't particularly good either.

But sandwiched between hits "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld," it probably doesn't matter.

The "Friends" in question are six twentysomethings who use each other as a support system to get through life. If there's a central character, it's Monica (Courteney Cox), the seemingly smart one whose life is the most together.

Of course, the fact that she falls for some guy's line - and falls into bed with him on the first date - in tonight's opener is clearly a sign that none of these people really have their lives together.

Monica's brother, Ross (David Schwimmer) is unhappy because his wife has just announced she's a lesbian and left him. Monica's friend, Rachel, is unhappy because she just jilted her fiance at the altar and left her monied and privileged life behind.

Monica's ex-roommate, Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow, who played the ditzy waitress on "Mad About You"), is an airheaded psychic.

And the guys across the hall from Monica are Chandler (Matthew Perry), who seems to know how to solve everyone's problems but his own, and aspiring actor Joey (Matt LeBlanc), whose confidence borders on arrogance.

Basically, this is a half hour crowded with too many characters each embodied with too little personality. And they're whiny characters in their 20s who think the world owes them a living.

The producers behind this - Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright - have talent, but they've got a lot of work to do to make "Friends" work.

"MADMAN OF THE PEOPLE" (8:30 p.m., Ch. 2): NBC thinks this is the greatest thing since "Frasier."

It's not.

It's just another sitcom with Dabney Coleman as the same character he's been playing since the movie "9 to 5." The fourth such sitcom, as a matter of fact.

They've tried to soften Coleman up a bit here, but it doesn't work.

He plays the title character, Jack "Madman of the People" Buckner, a magazine columnist who seemingly hates everything and everybody. And right now he hates the fact that his new boss is his daughter, Meg (Cynthia Gibb).

When Jack and Meg aren't fighting at work, they're fighting at home, refereed by wife/mother Delia (Concetta Tomei). The funniest part of tonight's pilot is a brief appearance by 24-year-old son/failure Dylan (John Ales).

Other than that, there's little or no chemistry here. It's predictable and pedestrian.

If you're a Coleman fan, you might like this. If not, don't bother.