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Spring sweeps through TV-land

Spring has seized the northern United States. Forsythia and daffodils punctuate winter's brown remains with dramatic yellows. Outdoor activities from yardwork to strolls on the beach beckon.

Perversely, TV networks make May "sweeps" month and do their best to keep us confined in their virtual worlds as they compete for eyeballs and advertising dollars.

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Some gems always turn up.

"Noah's Ark" (NBC, May 2 & 3) may be one (see story, Page 17). We can expect great things from "Great Expectations" on Masterpiece Theatre (PBS, May 8-9). And CBS has a classic story to work with in "Joan of Arc" (May 16 and 18). Each week we'll highlight the best of the lot in our "What's on TV" column.

Be prepared for an extra blitz of "Shocking Police Videos" (UPN) and the ilk, and ripped-from-the headlines quickies like "The Jesse Ventura Story" (NBC).

A hefty number of series will bow out, notably "Melrose Place" (Fox), "Mad About You" (NBC), and "The Nanny" (CBS). "Home Improvement" (ABC) deserves a special wave goodbye after eight years of mixing bits of wise family counseling with its goofy humor.

The most dubious special? NBC plans to run "Atomic Train" May 16 and 17. The plot involves a bomb that may blow up Denver.

The strangest? On the eve of the opening of "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," UPN will air a spoof called "Thumb Wars" (May 18, 9:30-10 p.m.) using a cast of human thumbs.

"Each passed rigorous auditions before getting the 'thumbs up,' " UPN assures us.

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