Not that the competition is exactly on the Olympic level, of course, but "WKRP in Cincinnati," premiering tonight on CBS, is the best new comedy series of the year. Its cast of zanies is not necessarily zanier but easily more sufferable than the crowds of cut-ups on any other new show.

For the opening episode, at 8 o'clock on Channel 9, writer Hugh Wilson had the difficult task of introducing all the characters and setting up the show's premise, and this does overstuff the half hour. But the actors register quickly and agreeably and the program could become a long-lasting chamber comedy in the "Mary Tyler Moore" tradition.

MTM produced the show, so the resemblance is not coincidental. And though Moore herself is not on the premises, the premises are reminiscent of the WJM TV news room in Minneapolis, it's been turned into a tone-deaf radio station where listeners are treated to such indigestible muscial treats as The Hallelujah Tabernacle Choir's rendition of "You're Having My Baby."

Into this aviary of apathy strides the hero of the show, Gary Sandy as country boy Andy Travis, who charts a livelier course for the station when named program director. He also spreads spirit and resolve among the deadbeats on the payroll and into self-betterment. Essentially he is an evangelist of positive thinking, and Sandy, previously seen on the short-lived "All That Glitters." makes a truly bracing and commanding figure. He's almost a Gary Tyler Moore; part of his job is to provide sane and sensible contrast to the whackos on the staff.

Of these, by far the champ is Howard Hesseman as "Dr. Johnny Fever," a woebegone deejay of whom one would never dream of asking, "Did you ever have one of those days?" He is one of those days, and thanks to Hesseman's proficiency at personifying animated gloom, the character also serves as an apt symbol for the '70s; he's willing to try anything to relieve his boredom, but his first instinct is to hunch over his coffee cup and just doze off.

Others in the cast tend to rise above the types they are assigned, Tim Reid, as funky-dunky "Venud Flytrap," seems to be kidding the hip black stereotype rather than just playing it. Jan Smithers makes the token independent woman affable enough (Loni Anderson plays her opposite: the bosomy dumb blond); and Sylvia Sidney is seen much too briefly in the premiere as the mother of the pompous and bumbling station manager, a stock foil played by Gordon Jump.

Sandy's character achieves hero status on the opener by changing the station's format to rock, "where the money is," he says, and helping curtail the $100,000 annual deficit. One hopes that in future shows he can practice problem-solving of a less fiscal nature and score victories not quite so hollow.

Jay Sandrich, the MTM ver who can direct almost any kind of comedy - including the snide anti-comedy of ABC's harsh "Soap" - directed the "WKRP" premiere. There's too much exposition and character introduction to allow for even a moment of repose, and yet the show does not seem as heartless or relentless as many TV sitcoms. It settles in right away like an addition to the family and stakes out the time period as its own. "People" Magazine A TV Show Premiering On CBS (Channel 9) At 8:30 Tonight? It's Another Idea Whose Prime Time Had To Come . . .

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