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Gulf Crisis Gains Beachhead on Prime-Time Series : Television: 'A Different World' and 'Under Cover' weigh in with stories related to the Middle East conflict.

January 10, 1991|STEVEN HERBERT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gomer Pyle's Marine Corps unit never got shipped off to Vietnam. Jed and Jethro didn't debate the bombing of North Vietnam over the "Beverly Hillbillies" dining room table. Carol Brady never brought her brand of suburban cheer to counsel a neighbor whose husband was in the armed forces.

But unlike the Vietnam War, which was virtually ignored by prime-time entertainment television, several series are weighing in with Persian Gulf-related stories.

On "A Different World" tonight (8:30 p.m., Channels 4, 36 and 39), the Hillman College students experience mixed emotions as a friend and distinguished alumnus, Zelmer Collier (Blair Underwood), joins his reserve unit in the Persian Gulf. The episode was written by series star Jasmine Guy and Dominic Hoffman, who portrayed her boyfriend last season.

Saturday, "Under Cover," ABC's new spy series, looks back to last summer just prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. National Intelligence Agency agent Dylan Del'Amico (Anthony Denison) meets resistance with his plan to leave Iraq while, simultaneously, his wife and fellow agent Kate (Linda Purl) and a new NIA recruit (Kasi Lemmons), are taken hostage in Kuwait.

CBS' "Designing Women" may well have been the first series with an episode related to the Persian Gulf crisis when it aired "Keeping the Home Fires Burning" Nov. 26. Charlene (Jean Smart) joined a military support group after her husband Bill (Douglas Barr), an Air Force pilot, was sent to the Middle East.

"We knew when the whole thing started we were going to have to address it somehow because her husband was in the military," co-executive producer Pam Norris said. "To ignore it would be silly. One thing that television does really well is address things that are happening when they are happening. Movies and other media don't seem to be able to respond as quickly."

No series has had its fate tied more to the Persian Gulf crisis than "Major Dad," network television's only contemporary military-themed series. The CBS situation comedy was intended to be a look at the peacetime Marine Corps.

"We are a half-hour comedy, and to try to dramatize or address an issue where people are losing their lives in our format is something you have to be sensitive about, and we are," executive producer Rick Hawkins said. "It has made us think very carefully about everything we write on our show."

Hawkins said that the series is also constrained by a four-week lag between when an episode is filmed and when it is broadcast.

"Say war is declared and our show airs after that time, it would create a chronological difficulty," Hawkins said. "It would knock the believability out of our show."

Last season, Maj. John D. MacGillis (Gerald McRaney) was sent into battle to a fictitious Central American nation. But now transferred to Camp Hollister, a Virginia supply base, there are no plans to send him to the Persian Gulf.

"He has a vital role in this supply base," Hawkins said. "Only in a dire situation would he be sent, because the job that he's doing is so important. If he was still in the job he had last season (heading a school of infantry at a recruiting depot), he'd probably be over there now."

An episode is being planned on a contingency basis in case war does break out, and would be shot and aired as quickly as possible, Hawkins said.

Although "Major Dad" has not devoted a full episode to the crisis, the subject has not been ignored.

"We started our season with an on-the-air tribute to all of the armed forces personnel deployed overseas," Hawkins said. "We did a scene (in another episode) where they tied yellow ribbons on the porch of the house where they live. In a day-to-day basis within the office context, they talk about shipping supplies to the Middle East and they make jokes about the sand and the equipment."

None of the producers involved reported receiving interference or opposition from the networks because of the Persian Gulf-related episodes.

"Sometimes people say sitcoms shouldn't deal with reality, that no character should be touched by any potentially tragic situations and nobody should have have any political beliefs or address anything that's in the newspapers. That seems ridiculous to me," "Designing Women's" Norris said. "These are characters and people. Ordinary people talk about the Persian Gulf crisis every day. You don't have to be (public-affairs talk show host) John McLaughlin to talk about it. These issues belong to all of us."

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