July 07, 2003 12:00 PM

NBC (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET)

Way back when, a triple threat was a football player who could run, pass and kick. In the performing arts, you might expect it to mean someone who can sing, dance and act or maybe play an instrument. You know, something to do with skills.

In the early episodes of this talent contest, the term was used incessantly by ‘N Sync’s Joey Fatone, the host, and Debbie Allen, the series’ producer-choreographer-cheerleader. To win this thing you’ve got to sing, or at least rap. Dancing’s a must. But Threat No. 3 is fuzzily defined. It can be presentation, star quality or a bigger-than-life personality. How can the competitors prove they have this X factor? By exuding energy and smiling till their faces hurt. This can be wearying to watch, particularly when the contestants strut their stuff—and I do mean strut—in group dance numbers.

As on American Idol, an expert panel evaluates the individual performances, though the voting public began determining the eliminations once the eager field was winnowed to 12. The showbiz sages—record exec Johnny Wright, singer and famous weight loser Carnie Wilson and L.A. disc jockey Jojo Wright—avoid Simon Cowellish negativity, maybe because Allen hugs the contestants protectively and often rebuts criticism in a mother-hen tone. I feel genuinely triple-threatened by diminutive dynamo Harlemm Lee, and he’d be worthy of the top-prize package (record deal, management contract, etc.). But Allen hyperbolizes in calling him “the ambassador for the whole human race.”

BOTTOM LINE: Standard star-search hoopla

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