It seemed reasonable to predict last September that "The Associates" would prove to be "the last great comedy series of the '70s." But after airing five of the first 13 episodes last fall, ABC suspended the show because of low ratings: Now the network is ready to show the remaining eight episodes, starting tonight at 9:30 on Channel 7.

So maybe "The Associates" will be the first great comedy series of the '80s.

Much about the program, based on a book by John Osborne about old and young members of a prosperous Wall Street law firm, looked bright and promising. The cast mixed several engaging newcomers with salty old-comer Wilfrid Hyde-White, and the series was created by a tribe of alumni from the old Mary Tyler Moore establishment.

In part, the program was a victim of scheduling, slotted after "Mork and Mindy," with which it is blatanly incompatible. When even the Orkan was zonked by Sunday night competition from CBS, "Associates" was doomed. This is probably its last chance to fine an appreciative audience.

Tonight's episode, written by David Lloyd (another MTM vet) unfortunately relegates most of the young cast to the background, but it lets Joe Rigalbuto step forward as the forgivably cloddish Eliot Streeter. And, better still, it gives Hyde-White about five minutes of comic grandeur as he jousts with guest star John Houseman, who plays the Professor Kingsfield role he originated in "The Paper Chase" (also based on an Osborne book).

The two are supposed to be longtime legal enemies at odds in a court case involving leaked government documents. They renew auld acquaintance in a cherishable, hilarious encounter that completely overshadows everything else on the program.

It's a matter of venerability gone mad and sent into orbit, and Hyde-White couldn't be funnier than when he rambles on meaninglessly from "Gunga Din" in response to a Houseman recitation from Henry James.

Still, this is not the best episode of "The Associates" and whether it will win many converts is open to question. One detail about the program is especially and destructively off-putting: the title tune written by Albert Brooks and sung by the formidable B.B.King. In a few words, it couldn't be worse; the tritest perky perky ditty would be preferable to such a deadly downer.

Also, it would have helped if a way had been found to introduce the characters all over again. One problem with "United States," according to some viewers, is that there was no opportunity to get to know the Chapins before being plunged into the melee that passes for their marriage. With "The Associates," there's an army of talent marching around, but it still hasn't been mobilized to maximum tactical advantage.