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November 06, 1994|DIANE WERTS | NEWSDAY

So I missed the first couple weeks of the fall TV season. There are worse things than going on vacation and returning to prime time already in progress. You get a whole different perspective when you come back to find everything different from the way you left it. A few nifty trends have already caught my eye:

DRAMAS ARE DEAD-- NOT!: Well, look what turns out to be the Numero Uno program format this season. Here we learn again that what goes around comes around. Ten years ago, sitcoms were dead until "The Cosby Show" resurrected them. Then dramas were dead--till "NYPD Blue" proved there was life in 52-minute form.

Now the only new breakout hit is NBC's "ER." And Fox, of all networks, is completely banking on its hours ("X-Files," "Melrose Place," "90210," "New York Undercover"), after its new sitcoms have died (adios, "Hardball" and "Wild Oats") and its veterans are struggling (even "The Simpsons").

It seems we viewers want what we have not got. When dramas dominated, we got bored and sought sitcoms. Now we're sitcomed-out, and clearly ready for something serious, stylish and adult. Hence the solid starts for newcomers "ER," "The Cosby Mysteries" and "Under Suspicion," and the ratings improvement of returnees "Picket Fences" and "Homicide."

GOOD IS IN: Meaning good shows, well-made shows, shows about something. Amazing? Not really. The rare drama that did get ordered in the recent less-than-hospitable network climate had to be good. And unique.

So there's nothing cookie-cutter about "ER," which persuasively creates a distinctive sense of place and action rhythms in the best tradition of "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue." There's nothing cliched, either, about CBS' Friday-night cop mystery "Under Suspicion," which operates in its own stylized environment, taking an interior approach to police work as a moral minefield.

Not every creative series is thriving, of course. ABC's serious "My So-Called Life," airing Thursdays at the normally lighthearted hour of 8 p.m., battles an audience reluctance to get dragged into its characters' emotional quagmires. Monday's sensitive and deft Fox family drama "Party of Five" isn't in the right place, either, following the high camp of "Melrose Place."

But the season's casualties thus far have all been shows that artistically deserved the fate. "Daddy's Girls," "Fortune Hunter," "McKenna," even "Martin Short"--it's hard to shed a tear over any of them.

GOOD IS IN, PART 2: If it's nice to know that quality still counts, it's also great to see that good, as in generosity of spirit, is staging its own prime-time comeback. CBS' "Touched by an Angel" is finding an audience for its sentimental spirituality, but even more rewarding is the series success of "Due South" in CBS' Thursday-night lineup.

CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE: How about those opening credits this season? ABC has been true to its word about dumping theme songs. "Ellen" just starts cold--and feels a little chilly.

Theme songs aren't always just dead space. They really do help set the tone for a show. The cartoon that starts "The Nanny" lets you know this is fantasy sitcom stuff; the music, grainy film and unstable cameras kicking off "NYPD Blue" and "Homicide" introduce the shows' unexpected styles.

Shows that don't go the theme-song route still need some sort of signature or unifying theme (the "Home Improvement" segue bumpers, the "Frasier" scene title cards).

And hey, so does a network. Kudos to NBC's sleek new on-air look, with elegant graphics, clever peacock logos, and those added-value "NBC Moments" end credits with clips from vintage NBC shows.

Little things, sure, but they're building blocks to success. Confidence is very sexy. You can also see it doing wonders for Jay Leno these days--revitalizing his show and transforming his also-ran image. And as we all know in the TV world, image is everything.

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