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HOWARD ROSENBERG

The New Fall Tv Season : 'Hooperman' & 'slap' May Turn Corner For Abc

September 23, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Poor ABC couldn't find any light at the end of the tunnel in recent seasons because it couldn't even find the tunnel.

Perhaps that is changing. If this is not the season that ABC turns the corner fiscally, it at least may be the season that ABC finally turns the corner creatively. A small corner, anyway.

Gamblers are not necessarily born out of desperation. But it is true that ABC, the network that has taken the biggest financial bath and the fewest ratings honors in the 1980s, is now taking the most chances.

Last season's unveiling of "Max Headroom"--a British-inspired, exploding, electroding fusion of satire and computer technology--was a hint of future boldness. And now, at least half of ABC's eight new series beginning the fall season--"Hooperman," "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story," "thirtysomething" and the satirical "Once a Hero"--have the look of unconventional series that ever so gently expand the scope and vision of TV.

Heading tonight's ABC lineup (on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) are the premieres of the compatible, back-to-back "Hooperman," starring John Ritter, and "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story," starring Dabney Coleman, at 9 and 9:30 p.m. respectively.

"Hooperman" and "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" are spiritual twins at the very least, their general intelligence, excellent writing and fine execution delivering a round-house blow for superior TV.

They share other qualities, too. The creators of both series have scintillating TV pedigrees. Both series have high-profile stars and a polished, filmic look. Neither artificially supports its humor with a laugh track. And neither is easily defined in traditional TV ways. These are either comedies with dramatic undertones or dramas with comedic undertones. The distinctions blur and probably aren't important.

"L.A. Law" originators Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher are the executive consultants and wrote the premiere for "Hooperman," which is soft, sweet, tender, sentimental, charming and occasionally very funny in a gentle sort of way. It's a very nice beginning.

Ritter, so closely identified with the broad burlesque of "Three's Company," is subtler, closer to the vest and only moderately goofy here as a San Francisco police inspector who inherits an apartment house. Clearly, Hooperman is at once a helper of others and someone who needs help himself.

Fun is deftly mixed with tragedy. We meet Hooperman the victim, in need of rescue, washing his hair in the shower when the water pressure suddenly dies. Then there is Hooperman to the rescue, talking a would-be jumper down from a building ledge by climbing onto the ledge himself and showing him what happens to a watermelon when hurled to the pavement below. Even here, Hooperman almost does himself in. "Don't look down," the jumper warns our hero, who immediately looks down.

Meanwhile, a friend of Hooperman's is slain and he traps the killer by unusual means.

Along the way, we see the start of some running bits: sexy policewoman Mo DeMott (Sydney Walsh) repeatedly trying to convert virile gay cop Rick Silardi (Joseph Gian) to heterosexuality, Hooperman getting ordered around by his boss (Barbara Bosson), and handywoman Susan Smith (Deborah Mullowney) attracting Hooperman's attention around the apartment house.

Beyond being an apparently bankable star, Ritter is the ideal vulnerable hero, enormously likable, sensitive and instinctively comedic, his gifts meshing here with the directing of Gregory Hoblit and the writing of Bochco and Fisher (the three of whom won Emmys Sunday night for "L.A. Law"). There is a sense of evolution about this series, a brick by-brick building toward larger and even better things to come. As for now, a low-key Hoop hoop hooray.

The old Slapper, though, is straight-out, slam-bang, slam-dunking wonderful, presenting Dabney Coleman at his somewhat-short-of-nasty best as an old-fashioned, tightrope-walking, typewriting sportswriter fighting to save his career.

"The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" is the best series since, well, last season's "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" on NBC. No wonder: Both are from Jay Tarses.

And "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" was the best network half hour since NBC's "Buffalo Bill" in 1983, the Dabney Coleman series that Tarses co-created with Tom Patchett. And Bernie Brillstein is executive producer of all three. So if mediocrity is incestuous on TV, so is quality.

Having raved about "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story," some back-tracking is in order. Don't tune in expecting to have Coleman knock you on your kazoo as he did on Sunday's Emmy telecast. The old Slapper is not necessarily a knee slapper.

The premiere does make you laugh out loud, but the laughs are separated by layers of story, irony and intriguing character development as we meet a complex, battered newspaperman whose clash with his editor (Brian Smiar) over a lawsuit leads to his departure.

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