COMES NOW the TV season of the New Oldness, Old formulas, old formats and old stars from yesteryear. Network television swings to the right and advances to the rear, and hopes all this will remind viewers of whatever old days they may consider to have been good -- days of 10 percent mortgage rates, maybe, or of songs you could hum, or when TV Guide cost 15 cents instead of 50.
Actually, these new TV seasons are getting to be more trouble than they're worth. Last year's was delayed by an actors' strike and this year's was delayed by a writers' strike and in both cases this has led to disarray and confusion. Why not just forget the whole thing?The concept of a "new fall season" is antiquated, but the revered Fourth Quarter of the TV year is still the most profitable for the networks, so commerce may demand the semblance of a "new season," even if the networks can't precisely agree on when it begins. ABC and CBS say the season starts tomorrow. NBC says it doesn't really start on any specific day because, to quote a spokesman in Burbank, "the TV year is 52 weeks long."
Of course the same spokesman also said, "We are now in the 54th week of the previous year," but network spokesmen are entitled to their inscrutability. The whole idea of a TV season, says an industry veteran, goes back to the '50s and early '60s, when auto manufacturers and cigarette companies introduced new models and new brands in the fall. The tradition stubbornly lingers, through each year with decreasing exuberance.
With the whole nature of television changing, and once-limited viewing choices expanding through the '80s, new fall network TV seasons will become even more anachronistic and quaint than they already are.
And the hot sooth from sayers on new trends? Jiggling girly shows are on the wane (a direct response, though the networks will deny it, to pressure groups campaigning against sex on TV), crime drama is careening back like gang busters, and a number of actors adjudged to be Old Reliables from TV's past will come back to haunt the airwaves again. The word for the new season is safe or, to put it in a less charitable four letters, dull.
There is no series that could qualify as major or innovational -- no new "Hill Street Blues," although there still is "Hill Street Blues," hanging by a thread on NBC. With viewing and programming patterns having changed considerably in the past decade, it is no longer fair to judge a TV season by its weekly shows. But even in the mini-series and specials department, there is nothing on the order of "Shogun" or "Masada" set for this season, either. The landscape of the new season is as flat as a Kansas plain, though surely not as pretty. ABC's New Shows
"Code Red". Another stab at cloning the "Emergency" format, with that silver-maned Alpo-singer Lorne Greene bounding back as a captain in the L.A. fire department, assisted by his agile sons, Andrew Stevens and Sam J. Jones, with Jones the pilot of the fire department's "Chopper One." Also shimmying down the old brass pole is "the city's first woman firefighter," Martina Deignan. Produced by Irwin "Towering Inferno" Allen, who knows his way around a conflagration (sunday, premiere date still not announced).
"Today's FBI". No Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (that's the good news) but more allegedly authentic cases taken (with permission, of course) from the FBI files, with Mike "Mannix" Connors heading a crime-fighting team that includes one woman, one black, and one Italian-American. Once more action fans will hear those immortal words, "Freeze -- Fbi!" (Premieres Sunday, Oct. 25 ).
"The Fall Guy". Lee Majors proves a suitable Burt Reynolds substitute in a breezy, enjoyable action caper slightly resembling Reynolds' movie "Hooper." Majors plays a stunt man who's a bounty hunter in off-hours to raise extra money. "Although laboriously teamed with a young idiot cousin, Majors makes a good time fairly infectious in the 90-minute series opener, which includes a cameo by ex-wife Farrah Fawcett. She tells him, "Hey, you still have great legs." Awwww (Wednesday, Oct. 28).
"Best of the West." Sam Best moves his reluctant wife and crabby little boy to the frontier town of Copper Creek where often is heard a discouraging word and the skies are cloudy all day, and where Sam stumbles into the job of marshal. ABC's Western spoof, a product of the minds that produced the zesty group comedy of "Taxi," is already something of a hit (Thursday, premiered Sept. 10).
"Open All Night". A prematurely ill-fated sitcom whose pilot show, screened for critics last spring, was to undergo substantial subsequent revision. George Dzundza plays the owner of a 24-hour convenience food store in "a neighborhood about as safe as Belfast." He is plagued by weirdos, zanies and kooks -- particularly, his own daffy wife and their junk-food-junkie teen-age son, of whom papa says, "If he were a laboratory rat, he'd be dead." (Friday, date to be announced).
"Maggie". Humorist Erma Bombeck's bewitched, bothered and belabored attempt at a domestic situation comedy about a housewife's life, with jokes concerning topics like varicose veins, potty training, stretch marks and zucchini cookies. Says the drip-dry Dad to the cardboard kids, "Mom's a great little kidder, isn't she, guys?" In a word, no (Friday, date to be announced).
"Strike Force". This show is not fooling; it's from intransigent TV trash-monger Aaron Spelling ("Starsky and Hutch," "Fantasy Island"), and probably the most violent new program of the year. Robert Stack, gritting his whole face, plays the top dog of war in a city combat crew that's called in for the really tough cases -- the ones too tough even for tomorrow's FBI, presumably. Naturally the force includes one black and one woman. The two-hour opening show is a sleazy affair about a homicidal maniac who prefers decapitation as his M.O. The M.O. for this production is painfully obvious, but for what it is, it's slick, tough stuff (Friday, date to be announced).
"King's Crossing".Not the hot-to-trot "Dallas" imitation some may have expected, this fairly warmhearted series is about life in a small town where two teen-age sisters grow their separate ways. One quickly tries to seduce the father of a child to whom she's giving piano lessons; the other, sensitively played by Marilyn Jones, sets about liberating her reclusive cousin from isolation and despair. Bradford Dillman is the girls' drunken old sot of a daddy, a failed playwright as the script has it, and Mary Frann is his determined wife (Saturday, Oct. 17). CBS' New Shows
"Simon and Simon". Jameson Parker and Gerald McRaney -- in time-honored TV tradition, a blond and a brunet, the equivalent of a tenor and a bass -- are two freewheeling private eyes working out of San Diego. One is prim, trim and tidy, the other sloppy-boppy, laid-back and living on a houseboat. Both are, alas, bores, and will be very lucky if their series makes it to Christmas (Tuesdays, Nov. 24).
"Mr. Merlin". In the good extremely old days -- 381 A.D. -- Merlin was born a sorcerer in fabled Camelot. But times change, and now he's a crotchety coot operating a San Francisco garage. That's only part of the are-they-kidding? premise for this feeble fantasy sitcom; Merlin is ordered by a willowy ghostie to find and hire a young apprentice, which he does, unleashing an arsenal of visual effects. How did he live to be 1,600 years old? Says Barnard Hughes, as Merlin, "I do 30 push-ups a day and I don't eat fried food." Chuckle chuckle chuckle (Wednesday, Oct. 7).
"Shannon". Kevin Dobson, whose tune Telly Savalas once called on "Kojak," gets his own series, playing yet another TV detective. This one is a recently widowed plainclothes man who has just moved to San Francisco from New York (do producers get together and divide up the California cities every spring?). "Shannon," which will try to mingle stories of the hero and his 10-year-old son with the crime capers, was produced by James T. Aubrey, the one-time president of CBS who was known in his day as "The Smiling Cobra" (Wednesday, Nov. 11).
"Jessica Novak". Presumably no relation to "Mr. Novak," the Stone-Age TV teacher (names with K's in them are big in TV titles), Jessica is a liberated TV newswoman who gets into all kinds of scrapes. Well, maybe not all kinds, but certain kinds. Helen Shaver, of Larry Gelbart's late lamented "United States," plays Jessica, with sappy David Spielberg, who bombed his last season in "Ladies' Man," as her boss. In the one-hour dramas planned for this season, Jessica will investigate chemical pollution, interview a fugitive Indian wanted by the FBI, make friends with a 15-year-old hooker, and, promises CBS, do her cute best to dodge "the attentions of an over-devoted fan and admirer" (Thursday, Nov. 5).
"Falcon Crest". An attempt by Lorimar Productions to duplicate its success with "Dallas," this serial, which follows "Dallas" on Friday nights and was originally called "The Vintage Years," chronicles the fortunes and misfortunes of wine country matriarch Jane Wyman (once Mrs. Ronald Reagan), who clawed her way to the top and keeps clawing now that she's there. Because -- the wine remembers, and so does the little old winemaker. The original pilot for the show was redone after it was decided that Wyman was too mean and nasty, and maybe one J.R. per night is enough (Friday, Dec. 4). NBC's New Shows
"The Powers of Matthew Star". A repeatedly retitled something-or-other about a superteen from another planet who arrives here with his guardian (Louis Gossett Jr.) and proceeds to ply his hocus-pocus (Sunday, Dec. 6).
"Father Murphy". NBC's one nearly guaranteed smasheroo spins off a popular character from "Little House on the Prairie," John Michael Murphy, and plops him down in a tiny Western town where, to safeguard a pack of orphans from bureaucratic polecats and life's little pitfalls, he occasionally dons the robes of a Catholic priest. Former L.A. Rams defensive lineman Merlin Olsen is a tower of soft-spoken strength, and sensationally likable, in the title role; Katherine Cannon is the schoolmarm who takes a hankering to him; and Moses Gunn plays his good friend (Tuesday, Nov. 3).
"Bret Maverick'. James Garner swallows his pride and returns in a role he played 25 years ago on ABC, in a sardonic Western series acclaimed then as "adult" but about which Garner later said, "I don't see anything so 'adult' about it." His laconic, easy-going style may be enough to kick some life into a seemingly dead horse, and his sidekick, happily, will be Stuart Margolin, a regular from "The Rockford Files" (Tuesday, Dec. 1).
"Love, Sidney". Although he was a homosexual in the NBC movie "Sidney Shorr," the character played by Tony Randall in this dramatic sitcom is now described by NBC simply as "an artist . . . who enjoys a platonic relationship with a girl half his age, and the girl's daughter." Or, who says Jerry Falwell hasn't had an impact? (Wednesday, Oct. 28).
"Lewis and Clark". To judge from the pilot, a shriekingly sodden sitcom in which dull Gabe Kaplan plays a Long Island city slicker who transplants his family to tiny Luckenbach, Tex., so he can run a nightclub there. Kaplan talks to the audience the way George Burns did on the old Burns & Allen show, except Burns was funny (Thursday, Oct. 29).
"Gimme a Break". Bouncey-wouncey Nell Carter as housekeeper -- essentially, faithful family retainer -- to a sitcom widower and three sitcom children into whose lives some rain must fall but probably not enough (Thursday, Oct. 29).
"McClain's Law". James "Gunsmoke" Arness returns to television in a hastily concocted cop opera about a 52-year-old ex-detective who joins the police force after his business partner is killed and the murder goes unsolved. Naturally, he is teamed with a young, smart-alecky officer (Friday, Nov. 20).
"The Devlin Connection". Another old duffer, Rock Hudson, returns as the head of a cultural center who is a detective in his spare time, as aren't they all? Naturally, he is teamed with, to quote NBC, a "street-wise, jeans-clad young man" (Friday, Nov. 27).
"Nashville Palace". An attempt to mine the country-western lode yet a mite further, this musical-variety hour will be taped in Nashville with guest hosts officiating (Saturday, Oct. 24).
"The Angie Dickinson Show". Angie starred in a sitcom pilot last spring that one and all concurred was a thud, so a new vehicle is being assembled for her by Carson (yes, Johnny) Productions. In that show, she will play -- surprise! -- a detective. Until it is ready, the time slot will be filled by such shows as "Fitz and Bones," a discard from last season starring Tom and Dick Smothers as a pair of semi-wacky TV newsmen (Dickinson, Saturday, Jan. 9; "Fitz and Bones," Saturday, Oct. 24). Movies and Specials
ABC has, as usual, the most enticing package of recent theatrical movies to unreel during the year -- the likes of "Superman," "The Goodbye Girl," "Grease," and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," along with such definitive clinkers as "Oliver's Story," "Running" and "Moment by Moment."
Among the dramatic specials and TV movies are "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy," with Jaclyn Smith as the former first lady; Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in "The Walter Lippmann Story"; a three-hour biography of tempestuous diva Maria Callas; a TV version of "The Elephant Man"; and five hours based on Albert Speer's "Inside the Third Reich."
ABC's entertainment specials will lead off with a three-hour 30th anniversary party, in prime time, for Dick Clark's apparently inextinguishable "American Bandstand," on Friday, Oct. 30. Other entertainment specials will feature Rodney Dangerfield, Goldie Hawn, Burt Reynolds, Wayne Newton and Princess Grace, proving perhaps that not even politics can make stranger bedfellows than television.
Movies to get their network debut on CBS will include the Mel Brooks Western farce "Blazing Saddles"; Clint Eastwood's merry "Every Which Way But Loose"; Dudley Moore and Bo Derek in "10" (probably about 8.7 after TV editing); and, because the Walt Disney series has gone from NBC to CBS this year, the network premieres of two sparkling and irresistible Disney classics, "Dumbo" and "Mary Poppins," in which an elephant and a nanny fly, respectively.
Mini-series planned for the CBS season range from "Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls: A New Version" four hours long (oh boy, do we need that! ); a six-hour series about "Robert Kennedy and His Times"; and "Bruce Catton's The Blue and the Gray," eight hours on the Civil War. Drama specials and TV movies include "Love Canal," about a housewife's battle against toxic pollution; "Washington Mistress," from a story by Sally Quinn of The Washington Post; the painfully self-explanatory "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer"; and, sound the trumpets, "The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies," no doubt hosted by Alistair Cooke.
The first major CBS dramatic special of the season -- airing Nov. 17 for 2 1/2 hours -- is the fact-based "Skokie," with Danny Kaye as a concentration camp survivor shocked by the prospect of a neo-Nazi demonstration in the Chicago suburb where he lives.
Entertainment specials will feature Mikhail Baryshnikov, Shirley MacLaine, Kenny Rogers, Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, and John Schneider, a Duke of Hazzard.
NBC has scheduled multi-part presentations of "Marco Polo," the adventures of a certain well-known explorer, filmed on location in Morocco, Italy AND the People's Republic of China; "World War Iii," which begins in 1987 in this doomsday fantasy; "Princess Daisy," from the Judith Krantz book; and an adaptation of Norman Mailer's book on Gary Gilmore, "The Executioner's Song," produced by Lawrence Schiller.
Other dramatic specials on NBC include Bette Davis in "Family Reunion"; Melissa Gilbert in an unneeded remake of William Inge's "Splendor in the Grass"; Robert Blake in an unneeded remake of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"; and Robert Conrad in an arguably unneeded make of G. Gordon Liddy's "Will."
Presiding over NBC entertainment specials will be Frank Sinatra, Steve Martin, the great Mel Brooks, and the steadfastly unscintillating Rona Barrett. Public Television
It will be what Bette Midler calls "the same old Shinola" on public television, with such questionably mouth-watering additions to the schedule as a series on furniture refinishing and a gaggle of soccer games taped in Germany -- television to cure almost anyone of wanting to watch television. i
"Masterpiece Theater" begins its new season tonight with its first Australian import, "A Town Like Alice," to be followed by a rerun of "Edward and Mrs. Simpson," previously shown on commercial TV here. The ambitious but little-noticed "Non-Fiction Television" series returns with "Pesticides and Pills: For Export Only" on Oct. 5; future programs in the series will concentrate on the problems of emotionally disturbed children and the birth of the blues in Memphis.
"Cosmos" will be rerun (there is nothing in the public TV schedule for this season that is quite so ambitious), and "The Shakespeare Plays" will continue with "Othello" and "Timon of Athens." The PBS "Great Performances" this season include adaptations of Edith Wharton's "House of Mirth" and "Summer." A new dramatic anthology series, "Playhouse," will begin in January with such attractions as a musical version of Studs Terkel's "Working." Pay TV
The most visible pay TV source in the Washington vicinity is Time-Life's Home Box Office, which, early in January, plans to expand to 24-hour service seven days a week, having gone 24 hours on weekends in September.
Among the movie titles booked by HBO for the upcoming season: "Private Benjamin" and "Somewhere in Time" (October); "Ordinary People" and "The Blue Lagoon" (November); and, tentatively, "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Breaker Morant" in December.
In addition, HBO has taped its own production of William Gillette's stage version of "Sherlock Holmes," with Frank Langella in the title role, to premiere Nov. 15.And, though plans are apparently still not firm, industry sources say HBO will beak something of a pay-TV barrier next spring by presenting the current Broadway-bound revival of Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot," starring Richard Harris as King Arthur.