January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

HAVE YOU TRIED WATCHING THE CITY? For half an hour every weekday afternoon, the genre that is known as soap opera is engaged in a heroic struggle to reinvent itself. One looks on with awe, admiration and concern, except during the commercials.

What is now The City began life 12 years ago on ABC as Loving, a daytime drama that grew mold in the ratings cellar. Now it’s spanking new. Intensively revamped last November and rechristened, the show has a new locale (Manhattan’s SoHo has replaced the fictional eastern town of Corinth) and several new characters of the comely, youthful Melrose Place variety. (The old cast was thinned by letting a serial killer loose.) Morgan Fairchild, an actress wreathed in the colored-tissue stardom of such prime-time soaps as Flamingo Road and Paper Dolls, has been brought in as a cool, tough media mogul named Sydney.

But what halts a channel-surfer’s peregrinations is the show’s gleaming new look. This is the Toy Story of soaps. The City is still shot on videotape, as are other soaps, but processed to have the surface polish of film, albeit at a lower cost. (MTV’s The Real World uses a similar technique.) The camera, no longer stationary, now goes prowling about the set, drifts up and down, tries overhead views and ventures outside to shoot on location.

The question is whether The City works as a soap opera anymore. The answer: not yet. In a week of viewing, I wasn’t able to latch onto a single character or storyline of interest. Gone is the cheapish, tacky but often enjoyable immediacy of the traditional, grainier soap. In its place are characters who, thanks to more flattering lighting, have gained in naturalness (they no longer look like mounds of sprayed hair) if not verisimilitude. But they still have that soap opera habit of stopping dead in their tracks just before a commercial and sending out portentous glances. Only in this vast landscape of under furnished loft space, a smoldering look gives off less fire. Characters can seem remote and their machinations puny. The City’s architects have used the finest materials, but they still need to tinker with the sense of scale. Nor, so far, has this experiment resulted in any overall Nielsen improvement.

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