Almost making the grade

'The Class': Getting together 20 years after third grade.

Multiplication tables, stabbing ourselves in the finger with a pencil by accident, and the Kennedy assassination are three pretty good reasons to stay away from third grade memories. In fact, we try to keep them at a distance, including those of our classmates, some of whom later went on to fame and fortune, including one who was thrown off a cliff by Colombian drug dealers. But while we don't wax nostalgic about those days, Ethan Maas, the hero of Xtra HOT's new comedy series The Class (debuting Sunday at 21:30) , does, especially about his sweetheart Joanne, to whom he's now engaged. And what better way to surprise her to mark the 20th anniversary of their meeting than to invite over some of their old third-grade classmates, right? Wrong. For while the premise of reuniting the rejects, hunks, and radicals of Mrs. Klinger the lush's Woodman Elementary School might've seemed a good idea to Ethan (Jason Ritter of Joan of Arcadia, the son of the late John Ritter) at first, it turns out he should've remembered that third grade was pretty miserable. The set-up for the show - the brainchild of Friends and Mad About You's David Crane, and directed and executive produced by James Burrows of Cheers, Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore, Will and Grace and other hits - however, is a winner. That's especially the case in the series premiere, featuring nice graphics offering third grade pix of the cast, then presenting them as they are today. So as Ethan calls his former classmates, we first see their sometimes nerdy looking third grade pictures - buck teeth, big glasses, chubby - and then see what they look like now. We also see the hand that fate has dealt them, some coming up aces, some big losers. Lina Warbler's "sort of in the middle of something with her boyfriend" when Ethan calls - discovering him in bed with another woman, actually. Her sister Kat, however, is more excited about Ethan's call: "I have no recollection of either you or Joanne, but you really sound like people I would hate." Not everyone's turned off by the idea, though. As soon as Ethan reaches Duncan, who still lives at home with his mother, it's an instant connection. "This is Ethan Haas," says the caller. "FROM THIRD GRADE?" screams back Duncan. Best of the ensemble cast of characters is Richie Velch - shown with huge glasses as a third-grader - who is just about to swallow a huge amount of pills in a suicide bid when Ethan's call interrupts him. "When is it?" the suddenly interested Richie asks. Soon they're all gathered at Ethan's place, with all the old relationships revealed: fat blonde Holly Ellenbogen, now a successful TV reporter who named her daughter Oprah, is out to find Kyle Lendo, who dumped her after the prom for... another guy. Funny thing, though - Holly's husband Perry seems twice as gay as Kyle. Nicole, now married to a football player, was Duncan's heartthrob, and when the two meet, it's instant reconnection. Most touching, however, is a sudden connection between Lina, who once dreamed of marrying Kyle, and Richie - two rejects who hit it off. But the star-crossed Richie seems to bring bad luck to everything around him, including Lina. Meanwhile, Ethan's got all the details down at the party, including the cook from the school cafeteria to make those luscious fish sticks the kids used to eat. But when Joanne totally disses the party and Ethan, leaving him with nothing but his old classmates, it's the cynical Kat who gets him out of his funk. "Just so I know," she asks, "how long are you going to wallow," reminding him to think of Joanne as "that selfish, hurtful whore." No wonder she got thrown out of school for telling her teacher he looked like a penis. HOT supplied the first three episodes of the comedy series, which is currently on hiatus at CBS, meaning its chances of being renewed are slim. The problem appears to have been mostly timeslot, since while the second episode sagged, the third was as good as the highly entertaining first one. While the parallels with Friends are obvious - there are simply more of them - perhaps Burrows and Crane should've gone heavier on the laughs instead of working to build new relationships. And while there's nothing quite as funny as seeing a reporter covering a storm get hit in the face with a flying stop sign, Holly's character too often sounds like a slightly more aware Phoebe. Still, considering the comedy series that were granted long life - Yes, Dear, for example - it would be a shame if CBS couldn't find a place on its schedule for this often endearing effort. While we certainly wouldn't want to go back to third grade - just the thought of flash cards makes us sweat - spending some time with The Class is a homework assignment that goes down easy.