JOHN CARMAN on TELEVISION -- Jim Henson's Hand Missing In `Muppets'

God bless Jim Henson. He created the world's most freakily adorable puppets. He set them loose on television in an anarchic rampage and then he died too soon.

Whether Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest of the "Muppet Show" cast should have outlived Henson is an awkward question as "Muppets Tonight!" debuts on ABC.

Produced by Henson's son and creative heir, Brian, the new series (8:30 tonight on Channel 7) is essentially a replica of the old syndicated series, which lasted from 1976 to 1981.

Kermit is the green presence behind KMUP-TV, where Fozzie Bear, Rizzo the Rat and other Muppets are chaotically unprepared for show time, but willing to scorch scenery and dash about wildly when guest stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Miss Piggy make their appearance.

The main new addition is a jive-talking Muppet named Clifford -- "your homey made of foamy" -- who hosts the show- within-a-show as the Muppets spoof "Baywatch" and "The Dating Game," and Pfeiffer innocently runs afoul of the always vain Miss Piggy.

Otherwise things look about the same. But they don't feel the same. As with other Muppets ventures since Henson's death, the writing is paler than it used to be, the characterizations are diluted, the action doesn't have quite the same zip, and the high spirits seem to have been dialed down a notch. Even Henson's voice inflections, as Kermit, are missed. For that matter, Henson's old collaborator, Frank Oz, is missed.

Brian Henson is capable of overseeing wondrous innovations. His animal creations for "Babe," the movie about the pig who could, were a seamless fit with the movie's live critters.

But in trying to continue his father's work by transforming "The Muppet Show" into "Muppets Tonight!," he unavoidably finds himself competing with his father instead. In that competition, genius outshines competence, and Jim Henson was the genius.

-- Still, better that Brian Henson try to reprise genius than Aaron Spelling, who takes his own shot tomorrow night with the series premiere of "Malibu Shores" (8 o'clock on Channel 4).

Spelling took a look at the plainness of the San Fernando Valley, and the splendor of Malibu, and thought hmmm, Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in oceanfront wrapping.

And NBC bought it, hoping it would have a brand-new "Beverly Hills, 90210" for teenagers.

Spelling's Romeo is Zach Morrison (Tony Lucca), a sensitive but scruffy Valley boy who transfers to the way cool Pacific Coast High School in Malibu and falls in love with his Juliet, Chloe Walker (Keri Russell).

It's an awful show, and the premiere is two whole hours of movie-length awful.

All the kids are totally cool but, like, beyond lame and totally mental at the same time. Like when omigod, one of the girls is caught in public in her "substandard shoes," and when Chloe's best friend Nina (Katie Wright) beds down to do "the wild thing" with Chloe's way cool older brother Josh (Greg Vaughan). Or when Josh's sidekick Teddy (Christian Campbell) burns his house down to, like, get his dad to pay some attention to him.

Thanks, NBC. Shows like "Malibu Shores" are why politicians are getting their greasy hooks into the television industry. Like, hello!

I'll give it one thing. The blond, wide-eyed Russell is drop- dead gorgeous, even if her acting is beyond wrong, and she is going to play hormonal havoc on however many adolescent boys NBC can scrape up on Saturday nights.

In other casting notes, the role of Flipper is played not by the customary porpoise but by Spelling's son, Randy Spelling. And there are young actresses in this thing whose real first names are Charisma and Essence -- the first women of those names ever to work outside a strip club.