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HOWARD ROSENBERG

The Good, The Bad, The Similar

September 08, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

And away we go.

The good news is that television has shed the "vast wasteland" label that Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow gave it in 1961. The rotten news is that 25 years later, despite a brave new world of gleaming high tech, TV is now a vast Goodyear blimp, gray, slow-turning and full of hot gas.

I'm not suggesting that the small screen isn't better now than in 1961 or during the overrated earlier "Golden Age of Television." Although the cable and VCR revolutions have dramatically altered the way we watch TV, they've caused little fundamental change in what we watch.

Although cable, videos and expanding off-network first-run programs have chipped away at the audiences of NBC, CBS and ABC, TV isn't essentially different or more exciting or more diverse. There are now merely more sources for the same types of programs.

Really, now, just how revolutionary is a prospective Fox Broadcasting Co. fourth network whose centerpiece is Joan Rivers? Can we talk? What's bold about independent stations running "The New Dating Game" or "The New Gidget"? And what's wondrous about such first-run cable as USA Network's sitcom from Paramount called--are you ready?--"Sanchez of Bel Air"? A nouveau riche Latino family from the barrio invades status-crazy Bel-Air and--as they say in Hollywood--the high jinks begin.

Back at The Big Factory, meanwhile, CBS and ABC are now chasing NBC, each seeking a "Cosby Show" Moses of its own to lead the way to the promised land of Nielsens. That means familiar terrain.

Not that good work isn't possible each new season, even within the rigid confines of a system far less intent on delivering programs to viewers than viewers to advertisers. Based on sample episodes provided by the networks, NBC's exciting "L.A. Law" is far and away the class of the class in 1986-87. NBC's "Our House" is a distant second, followed by "The Wizard" on CBS.

The season's 23 new series (premiering over the next few weeks) yield no trends, only extensions and continuations. There are more series with family settings and more leading roles for women. There are seven new series predicated on move-ins, people being plopped into alien environments as a facile way of creating conflict. There are also more sound-alike titles.

For example, the arriving "Sledge Hammer" is unrelated to the returning "Mickey Spillane's New Mike Hammer." There's an "Our World" as well as an "Our House" this season. There was an "Our Kind of Town," before it was retitled "Jack & Mike," and a "Taking the Town," before it was renamed "My Sister Sam." There's still a "Downtown" and a "Heart of the City" and "Easy Street," and there used to be "The Wizard of Elm Street" before it was shortened to "The Wizard."

Speaking of wizards, you'll find no predictions here. Capsulizing each new series based on a single episode is merely perilous (it was yours truly who initially rapped "Moonlighting," "St. Elsewhere" and even "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), forecasting ratings suicidal. I haven't done it since 1979 when I cockily predicted that "The Dukes of Hazzard" would be immediately hooted off CBS. It stayed five years.

SUNDAY --"Our House," drama, NBC, 7 p.m. CBS has owned Sundays. In a bold programming move, though, NBC is counterprogramming one of its most creatively promising newcomers opposite powerhouse "60 Minutes."

Warm, gentle, thoughtful, "Our House" stars stoical Wilford Brimley ("Cocoon") as a grandfather whose life is dramatically changed when his widowed daughter-in-law (Deidre Hall) and her three kids and their dog come to live with him. What seems corny on paper, though, is highly appealing on the screen. Some of the pilot episode's minor characters are overdrawn, but the cast is good and Brimley is a wonderful gramps, adjusting to his chaotic new life with grumpy resolve. "You don't need all this crap," his daughter-in-law tells him. "Don't worry about that," he replies. "At my age, I'm crap-proof."

--"Easy Street," comedy, NBC, 8 p.m. NBC isn't bozo-proof, though, witness this comedy with Loni Anderson ("WKRP in Cincinnati") playing a wealthy widow and former showgirl who brings her seedy Uncle Bully and his seedy friend to live with her in a Beverly Hills estate. Uh, sure. Even that grand farceur Jack Elam as Uncle Bully can't wring laughs from hokum that includes a scene where people stick spoons up their noses. This whole series may have a spoon up its . . . nose.

MONDAY --"ALF," comedy, NBC, 8 p.m. A Muppet-like alien is stranded on Earth with a typical sitcom family that tries to hide his existence from other Earthlings. Fortunately for viewers, ALF (Alien Life Force) speaks English. Unfortunately, nothing he speaks is worth hearing.

Max Wright, such a howl as the station manager in "Buffalo Bill," offers nothing as the patriarch of yet another zany TV family. "Have we learned nothing from watching 'The Cosby Show?' " he asks his chaotic brood. The answer is excruciatingly obvious.

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