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The '70s! The '70s!

The TV lineup looks a lot like it did 20 years ago as shows and ideas from the smiley-face era return.

September 02, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new television season looks ready to "boogie oogie oogie" like it hasn't since the days when both hair and disco were big.

In addition to the 1970s resurgence taking place in theaters with films such as "Boogie Nights" and the current release "54," the fall television lineup features several outright revivals or programs seemingly inspired by fare from two decades ago, though few of them appeared destined for such immortality at the time.

Following in the wake of "The Love Boat," which first set sail in 1977 and returns to UPN this fall after a spring tryout, are ABC's new take on "Fantasy Island," which premiered in 1978; a syndicated talk show hosted by Donny and Marie Osmond, whose ABC series ran from 1976-79; and new versions of the game shows "Hollywood Squares" and "Match Game," which both started as daytime series in the 1960s, though the former drew more attention with its syndicated nighttime edition that began in 1971.

Fox, meanwhile, has already premiered "That '70s Show," a sitcom lampooning the era, about Wisconsin teenagers; and CBS' new drama "Buddy Faro" contains a decidedly retro flavor, featuring Dennis Farina as a swinging detective who resurfaces after a 20-year absence. (In one episode, George Hamilton guest stars as the actor who played Faro in a TV show inspired by his exploits.)

Less directly, CBS' "Martial Law," a modern-day action series about a Chinese detective who moves to Los Angeles, raises faint echoes of the martial arts action popularized in "Kung Fu," which ran from 1972-75 on ABC. In addition, two new sitcoms, "Living in Captivity" and "The Hughleys," center around a premise considered groundbreaking when "The Jeffersons" made its debut in 1975--namely, a black family moving into a white neighborhood.

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Another high-profile update reuniting "The Mary Tyler Moore Show's" namesake and "Rhoda" portrayer Valerie Harper is still under discussion at ABC but is unlikely to get off the ground this season. There are also plans to turn a movie icon of that era, the 1973 release "The Exorcist," into a syndicated TV series.

Several factors, beyond a lingering fondness for bad hairdos and polyester, appear to be driving this '70s nostalgia.

Aaron Spelling, who came to symbolize the decade's TV escapism by producing "Fantasy Island," "Charlie's Angels" and "Love Boat" (he remains equally prolific today, producing the new "Love Boat" and "Buddy Faro" as well as Fox's long-running "Melrose Place" and "Beverly Hills, 90210"), attributes the revival wave to an appetite for lighter fare fueled by people's hectic lives.

"We travel by train a lot, and when I talk to people, they say, 'We don't want to watch just the news. We want to escape.' They use just that word: 'escape,' or 'fantasy,' " said Spelling, pointing to the series coming back to television or becoming movies, including "The Brady Bunch" and his own company's upcoming "The Mod Squad" feature.

People who grew up during the '70s have come of age as well, occupying decision-making positions at networks and production companies. Producers in the same demographic are also developing shows similar to those that appealed to them in their formative years--such as Chris Carter, creator of "The X-Files," who has acknowledged a spiritual debt to the 1970s fright-fest "The Night Stalker," which he watched as a teenager.

Mark Brazill, one of the creators of "That '70s Show," said that at age 36 he has finally acquired the requisite distance to revisit being a teenager. The show itself, he said, "started with [producers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey] saying, 'You know, there should be a show about the '70s,' and [as a point of reference] you immediately go to where you were in the '70s."

From a practical standpoint, remakes offer comfort to network executives because they promise instant name recognition. In a crowded environment, programmers grasp for any advantage in getting people to sample shows, and "Love Boat" did open with strong ratings by UPN's standards, though the numbers dropped in subsequent weeks.

The hunger for known commodities, in fact, has repeatedly led networks back to 50-year-old properties such as "Candid Camera" and "Kids Say the Darndest Things" (spun off from Art Linkletter's "House Party"), whose latest incarnations are currently rewarding CBS with solid ratings.

Steven D. Stark, a pop culture commentator for National Public Radio and author of "Glued to the Seat: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today," suggested that sheer demand for programming has spurred networks to look backward for their future.

"With so many slots to fill, I think the studios are out of ideas," he said, adding that remakes usually skip a generation, meaning programs from the 1980s aired too recently to provide strong candidates. (Spelling said he is contemplating another run at the 1980s series "Hotel," updated and potentially set in Las Vegas.)

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