How lucky for the abashed, third-place CBS: Central Park West proves to be the series Darren Star was destined to make. The creator of Fox-worthy Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place has come up with a prime-time soap opera that suits the tarnished Tiffany network to a T: a tale of ritzy, ditsy New York City careerists some struggling to make it, others plotting to retain their status and power.
Every Star project takes place within a certain clearly defined locus a high school, an apartment building. In CPW, it's Communiqué, a magazine that's a fictional knockoff of Vanity Fair and Vogue. Staffed by glossy Manhattanites, Communiqué has just imported a new chief editor, Stephanie Wells (Mariel Hemingway), from Seattle, where she turned something called Body magazine into a profit pumper. Hemingway, whose gorgeous-stunned-ox looks were used to good advantage on Civil Wars, here looks merely dumbstruck as she presides over story meetings in which eager beavers dressed all in black pitch such feature ideas as ''People who veg out [in coffee bars] the new slacker generation that has traded the corporation for caffeine.''
Stephanie, for her part, says things like ''If I can do nothing more than bring production costs down around here, I'll consider it a job well done,'' so you know she's not going to be much fun on this show. Even her husband an insecure would-be playwright sporting the new TV season's worst facial trend, a wispy goatee is more interesting. As played by Tom Verica (Die Hard 2), hubby Mark is literary catnip for Communiqué columnist Carrie Fairchild (Twin Peaks' Mädchen Amick). Carrie puts the moves on Mark in CPW's premiere not because she's in love with him but because Stephanie wants to fire her overpaid, deadline-missing tail it's seduction as revenge. Carrie wears dark fingernail polish, has dark mascaraed rings around her eyes, and chain-smokes. No surprise, therefore, that she turns out to be the black sheep of the hoity-toity Fairchild family (her mom is embodied by model and now talk-show host Lauren Hutton), or that her stepdad, played with jiggling-jaw intensity by Ron Leibman, just happens to own Communiqué.
Spinning just outside the magazine's offices is CPW's main subplot, involving Carrie's brother, Peter. He's played by John Barrowman, who is physically an eye-widening cross between John Kennedy Jr. and Hugh Grant. Here he plays up his John-John side as a softball-loving assistant DA with political ambitions. But Peter has just fallen for Alex Bartoli (Melissa Errico), who tries to hide from him the fact that she's a reporter for the New York Globe, a tabloid excuse me, ''a filthy tabloid that caters to the lowest common denominator!'' as Peter gasps when he learns of her career secret.
CPW is already off to a better start than the slow-to-blossom Melrose Place was; Star and his writers seem energized by the New York locale. The pleasures of CPW are almost entirely camp ones, of course everyone speaks in stilted, melodramatic sentences, and there are lots of bedroom scenes in which the rippling men always glisten with passion sweat and the slinky women always slide between the sheets wearing spike heels.
And if the series' chief problem so far seems to be Hemingway's dull character, there's already a remedy in sight: In the third episode, Kylie Travis will join the cast as a devilish fashion editor. Since kool, kool Kylie was by far the best thing about Models Inc., it's reasonable to hope that she'll turn Communiqué into the site of vicious catfights over purple picture captions and wayward semicolons. If CPW proves to be a much-needed CBS hit, nice young girls and boys all over the country are going to be dreaming of getting jobs at New York-based magazines. Just don't get any ideas about becoming a TV critic, kids I'll eat you alive. B+