"WIOU" extends greetings on behalf of the new television recession. Grant Tinker's funny and cynical ensemble drama, premiering at 10 tonight on CBS (Channel 9), rides the crest of crashing expectations, and does so with a wickedly amusing vengeance.
At the raggle-taggle major-market TV station depicted in the show -- WNDY by name, WIOU by nickname -- the news department struggles and sputters, its evening newscast is tied in the ratings with "Mr. Ed" reruns until the night a dirty old anchorman puts his hand on a woman correspondent's thigh.
She responds with a firm grasp of her own, in a singularly vulnerable spot, and tells him, on the air, "I'll let go when you let go." Embarrassing? Yes, but a boon in the Nielsens. Voila, an anchor team is born.
While certainly not as savage as Paddy Chayefsky's magnificent tantrum "Network" -- and not meant to be -- "WIOU" manages to balance its savory satire of the TV business with intriguing, essentially believable stories about the people who toil in it. Backs are stabbed, toupees adjusted, swords crossed, thighs groped. A moment of silence for a fallen colleague is interrupted when the overnight ratings come in.
The show works as a microcosm not only of the great American illusion industry but also of the whole wide rat race of modern life and all us poor rats who run it.
The opening sequence is a genuine grabber, though not in quite the literal sense of the anchor-correspondent encounter. Anchor Curtis Warden, an old-timer with a bum ticker, keels over during a newscast. While CPR is feverishly administered on the studio floor, an opportunistic reporter grabs the script out of the fallen anchor's hand and plops himself into the anchor chair.
"I'm Eddie Bock," he says into the camera. "Curtis Warden has the rest of the evening off."
"WIOU" marries the temperament of "St. Elsewhere" with the setting of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and the result is pleasingly, sometimes hilariously, abrasive. In any TV series, however, a viewer needs people to root for. Those are a little hard to come by here, but the possibilities remain strong.
John Shea, as Hank Zaret, the new news director who walks into the jungle as the series begins, is likable if bland; he's not quite as interesting as his shirts. The writers inflict Hank's dad on us, a man still reeling from divorce after 20 years of separation. Dad is a terrible nuisance and should be sent home.
Helen Shaver, as Kelby Robinson, the correspondent who becomes an anchor in about the oddest possible way, is also meant to be a heroine, but in the pilot, she allows her friendship with a local politician's wife to fog up her news judgment. This whole plotline is a bummer.
Phil Morris may be outwardly deplorable as the conniving, angle-crazed Eddie Bock (a character meant to suggest Bryant Gumbel, perhaps?), but his ambition is so utterly naked, it's almost cute.
The only two people with a claim to innocence are Jayne Brook as producer Ann Hudson -- attractive and instantly sympathetic in a vulnerable, Susan Dey kind of way -- and Wallace Langham as Willis Teitlebaum, the ingenuous intern who has a huge and not necessarily hopeless crush on her.
When Willis offers Ann a gesture of good-hearted consolation after she suffers a career catastrophe late in tonight's show, it's a welcome touching moment, something to keep "WIOU" from being merely a field trip to a snake pit.
On the other hand, the chief snake is a dandy: Harris Yulin as Neal Frazier, the former network newsman who has taken an anchor job at WIOU as his first step down the ladder he came up. Yulin makes Frazier a scintillating sleaze.
Others in the cast include the resilient Mariette Hartley as the executive producer of the newscasts. All of her line readings are wrong, but she doesn't do that much harm. Kate McNeil is a spectacular knockout descending a staircase in search of a job. Dick Van Patten's sappiness is put to good use as a hambone weatherman very loosely based on Willard Scott.
The "WIOU" pilot airing tonight is not quite the same show previewed for the press last summer. New scenes have been added to make the exposition a bit balder; a couple of characters recite their life stories for one another early in the hour. Either way, Claudia Weill did a bang-up job directing it.
When "Capital News" bombed on ABC last season, one message seemed to be that the public couldn't care less about the backstage antics of journalists. Nor should they. "WIOU" will have to bring its characters' personal lives to the forefront if it's going to survive.
In terms of the show's commercial chances, there's also the population explosion to worry about. Viewers can accommodate just so many ensemble dramas as part of their weekly viewing. Teeming casts are hard to keep track of. It will be an uphill fight for "WIOU" to make room for itself in an arena dominated by "L.A. Law," "Twin Peaks," "China Beach" and "Knots Landing."
Tonight's all-pro, power-packed premiere, however, suggests the "WIOU" team is going to put up a darn good fight. In the process, they have created a darn good show.