Anyone who ever thought "M*A*S*H" was catering to arrested adolescents will have to catch "Delta House," the new ABC-TV series version of the motion picture gold mine "National Lampoon's Animal House," because it comes across as "M*A*S*H" for arrested adolescents. Also, it's about a bunch of adolescents who ought to be arrested.
All three networks, with the copycat compulsiveness of a deranged Xerox machine, have their own campus rowdies on the way within the next few weeks -- CBS with "Coed Fever," NBC with "Brothers and Sisters." But it took the boring cunning and stout clout of frontrunner ABC not only to land the sole authorized ripoff, but to get it on the air first. A "preview" episode, the pilot, airs tonight at 8:30 on Channel 7.
In television, the race is not to be original, but to be the quickest mimic on the block.
The three writers of the pilot -- Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller -- also worked on the movie, and probably a lot harder. Cast members John Vernon, as the ineptly dictatorial Dean Wormer, and Stephen Furst, as fat frattie Flounder, also repeat their roles. But the writers went off to work on an "Animal House" movie sequel, so subsequent episodes will be written by others. The show's official premiere will be later this month.
In the opener, we are told the anarchistic, hedonistic nihilist Bluto Blutarsky, played to such a demolishing fare-thee-well in the movie by John Belushi, is in the Army, but his tubby brother, played by Josh Mostel, transfers to Faber College to carry on the tradition of beer-chugging and food-fighting. Mostel doen't have the menace that makes Belushi so commanding on screens large and small, but late in the show, when he shouts the line, "Blow it up with dynamite," his round face inflates in a manner that brings to mind the sublime bombast of his father -- the late, great Zero.
Bluto's brother comes on meekly at first, but later we learn that at another college he became "the first ROTC cadet in history to receive a full military court martial." Soon he adopts the Delta House gospel, articulated by the likable Peter Fox as Otter: "Nothing is impossible to the man who won't listen to reason."
The Delta hooligans are opposed in their quest for insensibly good times not only by the dean but by the stuffed shirts of Omega House, where there is very serious talk of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. That such references even pop up in a TV sit-com (the poli-sci building is called "Metternich Hall") may be encouraging, and though its rowdiness is always on the kempt side, "Delta House" is harmlessly daft and tolerably broad.
Unlike the film, the TV version is apparently set in the present. But then, perhaps the early '60s and the late '70s have more in common than we would like to shudder to think.