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television: Friday Wins on Sunday

Something old and something new fight for Sunday night.

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There's really no hard choice here. Tape one while you watch the other. Or watch "Dragnet" and wait until the Bravo cable network broadcasts the unexpurgated episodes of "Kingpin" on Friday nights at 9 and 10.

The numbers show that when given a choice between the two on Sunday nights, most people are opting for "Dragnet." And the masses are right: "Dragnet" is the better of the two. ("Kingpin" also airs Tuesday night at 10 as NBC packs the show into Sweeps Month, but it's not a repeat, it's another original episode.)

The updating of the old Jack Webb series for the 21st century pays homage to its antecedent in snippets of the familiar "Dum de Dum Dum" theme and in the way Ed O'Neill plays Detective Joe Friday in that well-known "just the facts, ma'am" way. In times like these, the old and familiar is comforting. But the rest of the show owes more to Emmy Award-winning producer Dick Wolf, the man behind one of today's most successful TV franchises, "Law & Order." It's taut, fast-paced and relentless. Like the original "Dragnet" and the rest of Wolf's current crop, the action focuses on the crime and the whodunit, never on the characters. "Dragnet" has come a long way since it began on radio in 1949, but it hasn't lost any of its punch. And without Webb's too-obvious moralizing in the original's later TV episodes, Wolf's version is even better.

"Kingpin," the other show in this fight, is a cat of a different color. Prompted by the success of a series about an organized-crime family on HBO, Emmy-winning producer David Mills ("NYPD Blue" and "Homicide") created "Sopranos" lite. This time the family is Mexican and the family business is drugs. Yancey Arias stars as Stanford-educated Miguel Cadena, who is fighting his way to the top of the family cartel. Sherry Lee (Laura Palmer on "Twin Peaks") spices up the plots as his gringo wife, the Lady to Miguel's Macbeth. Mills peppers the show with Spanish (often so much so that those not familiar with the language are left puzzled) and saturates the stories in strong amber-and-gold light, but he fails where "Sopranos" succeeds — in making the audience care about the characters despite how they earn their living. He's also stymied by the fact that what sails by without a whimper on cable just can't get past the reality that public-airwaves television is constrained in its language and violence.

This is not to say that "Kingpin" is bad television, just that "Dragnet" is better. However, if the two weren't claw to claw in this cat fight, both might be winners.

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