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LANSBURY AND CO. POKE FUN AT THEIR `FRIENDS’ AND RIVALS

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If you can't beat them, make fun of them.

That seems to be the motto at "Murder, She Wrote" this week, with an installment that takes dead aim at its competition.In an episode titled "Murder Among Friends" (7 p.m., Ch. 2), Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) is in Hollywood taping a PBS series about mysteries. Unlikely as it seems, she's working right next to the set of television's hottest sitcom, titled "Buds."

And "Buds" is about six young people who are, um, friends. And they spend a lot of time sitting around a funky coffee shop.

Any similarities to the actual "Friends" are purely intentional.

And Lansbury and Co. aren't exactly subtle about their feelings about "Buds" - or "Friends."

"It truly is a phenomenon," Jessica says to one of the "Buds" cast members. "Who would've thought a group of twentysomething young people sitting around all day long discussing their sexuality would turn out to be a top TV show?"

"Come on, there's a whole lot more to it than that," the young man replies. "There's the way we . . . and the whole . . . I guess you're right."

Of course, everything isn't happy on the set of "Buds." Seems the show's executive producers are being pressured to cut costs by cutting out one of the cast members.

(Another flight of fancy.)

And, of course, it isn't long before the awful executive producer of "Buds" is murdered. And the suspects include not only her husband and co-executive producer but several members of the cast of "Buds" as well.

What "Murder Among Friends" proves once again is that "Murder, She Wrote" can fit any premise to its comfortable - if extremely worn - formula. You know that you can expect several red herrings. You know that the first person arrested isn't going to be the real killer.

And you know that once Jessica confronts the real killer with her evidence, that that person is going to break down and confess.

(You'd think murderers would be a little smarter than that, wouldn't you?)

It's fairly natural that the whole cast and crew of "Murder, She Wrote" would be a bit resentful of "Friends." Since the two shows began competing last fall, "Friends" has regularly beat the crud out of "Murder" in the ratings.

In the average week, more than twice as many homes are tuned in to "Friends" than are watching "Murder." Last week, "Friends" averaged a 21.7 rating and a 32 share to a 9.7/15 for the first half of "Murder, She Wrote."

And while "Friends" is No. 3 overall in the ratings this season, "Murder" - which used to be a fixture in the Top 10 - is about 60th.

Still, "Murder Among Friends" is no nasty stab at a competitor. It's more good-natured ribbing.

And, chances are, many of Angela Lansbury's biggest fans don't even know who Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer are.

QUOTABLE: "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher:

"Thieves in Erfurt, Germany, broke into a museum and stole two of the original Bert and Ernie dolls. Police say the thieves are armed and extremely whimsical."