NBC shows tonight offer many happy returns

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tonight's TV is as easy to recommend as it is to watch. Just tune to NBC at 8, and stay tuned for the full three hours of prime time.

That'll get you two episodes of "Friends," one episode each of "Mad About You," "Seinfeld" and "E.R.," and help you avoid the CBS "Simon & Simon" reunion made-for-TV movie in its entirety.

* "Mad About You" (8 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Channel 11) -- Just in case you're sampling one or more of tonight's NBC series for the first time, here's a bare-bones rundown of how the Thursday-night series relate to one another -- especially tonight. This leadoff series, for example, stars Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt as a young married couple. On occasion, they dine at their neighborhood restaurant, where they suffer the unpredictable service and comments of wacky waitress Ursula (played by supporting player Lisa Kudrow). NBC.

* "Maryland Connections: Preserving the Past" (8 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Channels 22, 67) -- Maryland Public Television marks Black History Month with profiles of storyteller Mary Carter Smith, actor and activist Keith Snipes, and the Smithsonian's American History museum director, Spencer Crew. With host Nate Howard. PBS.

* "Simon & Simon: In Trouble Again" (8 p.m.-10 p.m., Channel 13) -- Look, I never understood why this amiable but disposable series lasted as long as it did the first time around. Why it's coming back as a made-for-TV movie reunion of sorts is even more of a mystery -- one I don't expect these guys to tackle, much less solve, during their two-hour excursion. Jameson Parker, Gerald McRaney star. CBS.

* "Friends" (8:30 p.m.-9 p.m., Channel 11) -- Part 1 of 2. This series is all about a bunch of young people who live in the same apartment complex. On occasion, they dine at their neighborhood coffeehouse, where they talk about life and love.

On tonight's show, one of the guys (Matt LeBlanc's Joey) visits an out-of-the-way restaurant and meets, and falls in love with, a wacky waitress named Ursula (played by guest star Lisa Kudrow). This leads to all sorts of complications, since she's the twin sister of Joey's good friend Phoebe (played by "Friends" co-star Lisa Kudrow).

And, to add to the confusion, guest star Helen Hunt plays Jamie, her character from "Mad About You." NBC.

* "Seinfeld" (9 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Channel 11) -- The core of Thursday's lineup stands alone -- but stands to be very enjoyable anyway. NBC.

* "Friends" (9:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Channel 11) -- Second of two parts. Concluding the story left dangling 30 minutes earlier, this episode of "Friends" begins with a visit to the emergency room of the local hospital, where Monica and Rachel (Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston) run into, and end up going out with, a couple of unmarried doctors -- played by George Clooney and Noah Wyle of "E.R."

Mr. Clooney, especially, is very funny in this lighter format, and the entire two-parter is a triumph that ought to win "Friends" many new ones. NBC.

* "E.R." (10 p.m.-11 p.m., Channel 11) -- Finally, this popular medical series presents another fresh episode -- but on this one, unlike on "Friends," there's no pregnant lesbian or Scrabble-tile-swallowing monkey seeking treatment. Not this week, anyway. NBC.

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