EVERY YEAR TV critics have to think up new ways to say, "This looks like the worst TV season ever." Not this year. Heavy-duty examination of pilots for most of the new fall shows gives the impression that the networks haven't looked so good in a long, long while.

Suddenly, and perhaps fleetingly, it is the prime of times.

Of course, most programs are still just idle doodles and light diversion aimed at snaring child viewers with the hope parents will string along. And both the comedy-of-ideas and the drama-of-ideas are in great scarcity on the weekly schedules. The overall level of escapist fluff, however, has risen, especially over last year; it's simply better, more amenable, less facetious fluff. Production values and script quality have definitely improved, and last year's tongue-in-cheek smugness has almost disappeared. Even old "Matt Houston" will be played straighter this season.

Prime time still celebrates the banality of banality, but the celebration looks to be more convivial, and less gratingly foolish, in the months ahead.

Not only do the weekly shows seem better this year, but projects waiting in the proverbial wings for the "second season" (which starts when the first new shows flop) sound unusually promising, too. Norman Lear is returning to television with at least two late starters, one for ABC and one for NBC. And Lorne Michaels, who created and produced the original "Saturday Night Live," is preparing a live prime-time young-adult variety program, "The New Show," for NBC. When sheer greats like Lear and Michaels come back to network TV, that is a sign that dirges for networks are premature. Economically, for all their crybaby attempts to get the FCC to let them back in the syndication business, the networks are sound. Philip Burrell, network programming vice president for the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample (DFS) advertising agency, says, "If you want to reach a national audience in a dramatic way, there's still only one place to go."

The networks have also compiled an imposing list of mini-series and movie projects for this season, though nothing perhaps as mammoth as last year's "Winds of War," plus such singular events as the Winter Olympics on ABC. The season officially starts Sept. 26, except that nothing's very official in television, and some new shows have already made their premieres.

Why should TV, which always seems to get worse, get better? Some industry observers think the networks are reacting to the new challenges from cable, pay cable and independent stations. Burrell says, "We sense a thread of quality running through some of the shows" and thinks the networks are taking "more care in putting them together."

Another encouraging sign on the video horizon: situation comedies, long considered the jellyfishy backbone of prime time, are on the wane, and dramatic programs dominate the 22 new network series premiering this month and next. All those people who said last year that TV couldn't get worse may have been right, because this year looks to be better.

Contemplating this unexpected turn of events, and implicitly cautioning against premature elation, the estimable Larry Gelbart, returning to TV this season with "AfterMASH" for CBS, notes from Hollywood, "I think it was Nostradamus who said, 'When television gets better, the world will come to an end.' " So there is good news, and bad news. ABC

Hollywood producers think of ABC as the "high concept" network, which means ABC executives are most interested in buying shows whose essence can be summarized in one short sentence. And, often, dismissed after one short viewing.

But the network traditionally known as the junkiest also has the one show considered by industry and advertising savants to be the single guaranteed hit of the new TV year: "Hotel," a drydocked "Love Boat" that features occasional cameos by Bette Davis and a new gaggle of guest guests each week, and is blissfully scheduled right after the hit "Dynasty" on Wednesday nights.

Some insiders think this will be the year ABC wrests the first-place prime-time crown back from CBS, which has owned it for four very profitable years. According to a report by Crowell, Weedon and Co., a Los Angeles brokerage house, the coming TV season will be "one of the tightest three-way races in many years, with the probabilities growing that CBS will not repeat as number one in prime time." David L. Seidel, vice president of programming for Leo Burnett USA in Chicago, says, "We still see CBS first, NBC third," and DFS' Burrell says he will predict only as far as the all-important fourth quarter (October through December, when ad rates and viewing levels are highest), which he gives to CBS.

Here are ABC's new shows, with premiere dates in parentheses.

"Just Our Luck" (Tuesday, Sept. 20, 8 p.m.) shows what happens when the hapless weatherman for an L.A. TV station ("KPOX") teams up with a black genie named Shabu who pops out of a bottle bought at a junk shop. The genie, played by T.K. Carter, is a drearily jivey stereotype who calls the weatherman "mastuh"; the NAACP has protested the absence of black writers or producers on the show. Carter pretty well sums "Luck" up when he says, "I'm talkin' stone stupid."

"Oh Madeline" (Tuesday, Sept. 27, 9:30 p.m.), which went through the working titles "On the Side," "Love and Marriage," "Yes, But I'm Married" and just plain "Madeline," stars Madeline Kahn as a health-food nut who drives her husband of 10 years cuckoo with her wacky shenanigans. In the premiere, both find themselves sneaking through the neighborhood in towels, as Madeline retrieves the diary of a divorced friend who says she has sexual fantasies about Caspar Weinberger and Lech Walesa. Broad farce made tolerable, if not memorable, by Kahn. ABC publicity calls it "a delicious new comedy full of devilish antics and whimsical foolery," and network spokesmen say Kahn will be the Lucille Ball of the '80s. More likely the Gale Storm.

"Hotel" (Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 9 p.m., thereafter at 10 p.m.), as in "Grand," is another multistory, multistar melodrama from producer Aaron Spelling, of "Love Boat"-"Fantasy Island" fame. Each week glamorous guests check into the fictitious St. Gregory Hotel in San Francisco, a lot of them looking for love in all the right places, and finding it. James Brolin, as the hotel manager, tries to prevent crises, and Bette Davis makes very infrequent and brief appearances as the hotel's owner. Miss Davis is ill; Anne Baxter has been added to the cast as a contingency measure. In the two-hour series premiere, Davis is on camera for less than 10 minutes.

"Trauma Center" (Thursday, Sept. 22), briefly retitled "Medstar" in August, and strictly s.o.p. "Emergency" pulp, details the travails of a crack trauma team who deal with such pressing matters as the pregnant victim of a teen-age joyriding accident and a roof that falls on high school promgoers. Superdoc "Cutter" Royce (James Naughton) manages to be everywhere at once, pausing only to sigh, "There's no reason for me to care this much," and he's right; there's no reason for anyone to care about him caring, either. In the premiere, three turkeys are brought in on a stretcher, ominous symbolism indeed.

"It's Not Easy" (Thursday, Sept. 29, 9:30 p.m.) may be the deftest new situation comedy of the year, but the situation is a little hard to follow: Jack Long (Ken Howard) was divorced by his wife Sharon (Carlene Watkins) who married Neal Townsend (Bert Convy) and moved across the street from Jack. Neal has a 14-year-old son by his previous marriage, and Jack and Sharon have a son and daughter who do a lot of street-crossing. With Jayne Meadows as Jack's merrily interfering mom. A funny, "who's-on-first" comedy of modern postmarital manners, but perhaps ABC should supply a road map to each viewer.

"Webster" (premiered Friday, Sept. 16, 8:30 p.m.) offers a challenge to Gary Coleman as cutest kid on American TV in the person of young Emmanuel Lewis, veteran of many a pudding and burger joint commercial, as the adopted son of Alex Karras and Susan Clark. The comedy is strained, and the child adorable but no ace at tossing off nifties. Once called "Then Came You," the series might turn out to be "There Went Webster."

"Lottery" (Friday, premiered Sept. 9, 9 p.m.) tells two stories a week, either comic or dramatic, of winners of a fictitious international lottery and how they cope with their multimillions. The contagious, self-mocking good humor of Ben Murphy, as the man who giveth out the checks, location photography in various cities, and a genial updating of the old "Millionaire" show make this series a very pleasant trifle, but sources say Murphy's broguish Irishness will be "toned down" in future episodes, and he will wear his bowler less.

"Hardcastle and McCormick" (Sunday, Sept. 18 at 9 p.m., thereafter at 8 p.m.) gives Brian Keith his best TV role ever, that of the aptly named Judge Hardcastle, a hard-nosed hard-liner who wears tennis shoes under his judicial robes--as well as a gun and holster--and still likes Lone Ranger comic books (you wanna make something of it?). To nab miscreants who slip through the butterfingers of the long arm of the law, he teams with a wily ex-con (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and sets out to clean up the town. Too many car chases, but Keith's hellfire and brimstone are riotously refreshing. CBS

CBS, that most arrogant of networks, offers the smallest number of new shows -- only five -- having scheduled three movie nights per week to plug holes that will be filled in December when additional programs, unnannounced now, will be unveiled.

While CBS enjoys ratings leadership now, its once solid Sunday night schedule has become increasingly shaky, particularly with the loss of "Archie Bunker's Place," and the other two networks are launching massive assaults on the CBS Friday night lineup, where "Dukes of Hazzard" has done miserably in summer reruns and where even "Dallas," though reportedly to be sexed up still further for the new season, may have seen the last of its Cobb-salad days.

Insiders and outsiders alike say a "palace revolt" by the programming division against budget cuts demanded by corporate management could further weaken the CBS competitive position for the season ahead. In other words, what the other networks don't do to CBS, CBS might do to itself.

Here are the new CBS weekly shows:

"Scarecrow and Mrs. King" (Monday, Oct. 3, 8 p.m.), a fey "Hart-to-Hart" caper about a bumbling CIA agent (blah Bruce Boxleitner, of last year's "Bring 'Em Back Alive" bomb) and his unlikely alliance with a ditzy housewife (Kate Jackson), aspires to nothing higher than imitative twinkliness. Bruce and Kate even spat cute. "His methods might be unorthodox, but Scarecrow always delivers," says a fellow agent. The show doesn't. Traditionally, 8 o'clock shows need to have some kid appeal, and this one will leave kids cold.

"AfterMASH" (Monday, Sept. 26, 9 p.m.), certainly the most eagerly awaited curiosity on the CBS schedule, brings home three veterans of the 11-year TV classic "M*A*S*H" in the hope that viewer goodwill toward that show will extend to the new one. Harry Morgan, as Col. Potter, goes back to a small town in Missouri; Jamie Farr as Klinger, returns to Toledo with the new Korean bride, played by Rosalind Chao, he married in the famous "M*A*S*H" finale; and William Christopher as Father Mulcahy, goes to Philadelphia--except that all three will be reunited in the same town, for the duration of the series, by the end of the first special one-hour premiere.

Although the show was not available for pre-screening, it was created for TV by Larry Gelbart, the brilliant writer who helped create "M*A*S*H" and was a writer and producer of it until 1976. From Hollywood, Gelbart says, "If the theme of 'M*A*S*H' was that war is hell, the theme of 'AfterMASH' is that peace is no picnic, either." Gelbart says the program will deal with problems of veterans in the '50s that will be relevant to problems of veterans today. "It's not another 'M*A*S*H' and is not meant to be another 'M*A*S*H'," Gelbart says, but it will have the same "very gentle" laugh track as its illustrious ancestor.

"Emerald Point, N.A.S." (Monday, Sept. 26, 10 p.m.), originally called "Navy," stars Dennis Weaver as a rear admiral, widower, father of three daughters, and devout idealist who deals with military and family crises, many of them brought about by a promiscuous and rebellious daughter (the dewy and appealing Susan Dey). A CBS insider says the continuing drama, from the creators of ABC's "Dynasty," will feature "lots and lots of sex." N.A.S. stands for Naval Air Station.

"Whiz Kids" (Wednesday, Oct. 5, 8 p.m.), shrewdly combines elements of "WarGames"--kids and their computers--with elements of "E.T."--kids and their bicycles. The pilot is a fairly delightful hour about junior high school pals who foil the intentions of evildoers by turning hacker and invading this or that computer. Matthew Laborteaux, once of "Little House," is the agreeable chief hacker. CBS is nervous about the show in light of real-life computer piracy problems and may soften the premise in future episodes.

"Cutter to Houston" (Saturday, Oct. 1, 8 p.m.) answers the question, "What happens when three bright young doctors are transferred to a small hospital in Texas?" The answer is, "Don't ask, and don't bother watching, either." What generally happens is that helicopters buzz accident victims thither and yon, and in the premiere, a man who lost his arm in an oil explosion ends up in the operating room holding a gun on doctors trying to perform emergency surgery on his pregnant wife. In a nutshell: more Mondo Medico hokum-shmokum. NBC

Even though NBC will probably end up in third place -- again -- when final ratings for the new TV sea- son are tallied, things are looking up for the network. During the bleakest year of the Fred Silverman reign, 1981, NBC's profits fell to $48.1 million, peanuts by network standards. Last year, under chairman Grant Tinker, a revitalized NBC logged pretax profits of $107.9 million. Tinker has spread tremendous confidence and esprit within the company.

The word on the new NBC prime-time schedule is so positive that even stock in NBC's parent company, RCA (the one that makes those junky videodisc machines) is getting healthier. One advertising executive says NBC's program development this year is the best of all three networks. Still, NBC is taking big chances in a stubbornly risky business. It will introduce more new shows (nine) than any other network, has changed its lineups every night of the week, and has a Friday night schedule made up entirely of new programs.

Here are the new NBC shows:

"Boone" (Monday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m.) hopes to fill the warm and toasty void left by the loss of "Little House on the Prairie" on Monday nights. It's a touching, ingenuous family drama from Earl Hamner Jr. ("The Waltons"), set in the 1950s, about a likable Tennessee kid who says that singing and playing the gee-tar are his "heart's craving," though not his family's. On the premiere, the gee-tar ominously snaps a string, and Boone says, "This ol' thing ain't worth a doodley-durn." It's that kind of show, almost chokingly colloquial but dripping with decency and tender intentions.

"Bay City Blues" (Tuesday, Oct. 25, 10 p.m.) is still being put together by producer Steven Bochco, who created "Hill Street Blues" and says from his Hollywood office that this drama-comedy series about a minor-league baseball team in a blue-collar northern California town "really isn't anything like 'Hill Street'; it isn't even close." Although the show has 16 regular characters--the "Hill Street" ensemble style--it has "a sweetness you don't find on 'Hill Street,' " Bochco says, in its portrayals of the wins and losses, on and off the field, of the team members.

And what about TV Guide's recent report that viewers of the program will see an occasional stark-naked Bay City fanny in the locker room scenes? "We're not doing a cheek count," says Bochco, "but in the natural course of events, you may see a bare butt or two crossing the frame." Another television milestone.

"We Got It Made" (premiered Thursday, Sept. 8, 9 p.m.), the stupidest new show of the year, cribs from "Three's Company" but makes that show look like a Noel Coward comedy by comparison. An extremely unfunny jiggle-com about two jerk roommates who hire a gorgeous blond bombshell to be their maid and pet.

"Mr. Smith" (special one-hour premiere Friday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m.) sounds boobytrapped by its own gimmick: a comedy about an orangutan (played by C.J., of movie fame, and by a double in a monkey suit) who, after dipping his banana in a solution he accidentally mixed himself, gets the gift of speech and an IQ of 256 to boot. But "Mr. Smith" is no "Mr. Ed"; the show was created by two producers, Ed Weinberger and Stan Daniels, who helped give the world the original Mary Tyler Moore show, and the script for the premiere is full of charm and family humor.

Kept under wraps by a Washington think tank, Mr. Smith wears three-piece suits, can do an accurate vocal impression of President Reagan ("I could tell you stories about Bonzo that would curl your hair"), and is watched over by Leonard Frey as a dictatorial personal secretary, sort of a human C3P0. Though very smart, Mr. Smith gets pretty cranky cooped up in his suburban Washington estate, and he still has some trouble with muscle coordination. As he explains in the premiere, "I can read Hebrew, but I can't play Frisbee--go figure." Burnett's Seidel says, " 'Mr. Smith' could be a maximum hit."

"Jennifer Slept Here" (Friday, Oct. 21, 8:30 p.m.) stars the shimmeringly beautiful, and funny, Ann Jillian as the ghost of a Hollywood star who haunts her Beverly Hills home and the 14-year-old boy who just moved into it with his parents. A nice standard fantasy-comedy that is, except for Jillian, spiritless.

"Manimal" (Friday, Sept. 30, 9 p.m.) boasts, or dares to brandish, the season's most outrageous premise. Crimefighting professor Jonathan Chase (that dashing Simon MacCorkindale) can turn himself at will into a panther, an owl, even a pussycat in the course of getting the goods on bad guys. He is assisted by perky Melody Anderson as a woman detective. Not as silly as it sounds, and kids will love it. On the premiere, Chase walks into a disco and the band is playing "Eye of the Tiger," haw haw.

"For Love and Honor" (Friday, Sept. 23, 9 p.m., thereafter at 10 p.m.) owes a debt to last year's box-office smash "An Officer and a Gentleman," but virtually every TV series owes a debt to something. "Honor's" tales of life among the 88th airborne rangers, who include female recruits in their ranks, look to be intelligent, sexy and serious, to judge from the nicely textured two-hour premiere. The formidable Yaphet Kotto plays the Lou Gossetty role of Platoon Sgt. China Bell.

"The Rousters" (Saturday, Oct. 1, 9 p.m.) is another wry, antic rollick from Stephen J. Cannell, creator of "The Rockford Files" and "The A-Team," this one about a family of Wyatt Earp's descendants who run a raggle-taggle carnival. The show has Cannell's usual tangy comic twang, and stars Chad Everett as Earp III, with a true discovery, Maxine Stuart, stealing scene upon scene as his cantankerous, shoot-first mom.

"The Yellow Rose" (Sunday, Oct. 2, 10 p.m., thereafter Saturdays at 10 p.m.) has the most lustrous cast of the new season--Cybill Shepard, Susan Anspach, Sam Elliott, David Soul, Noah Berry and others--in a grown-up dramatic serial along the lines of the movie "Giant," about hunkerin' and hankerin' on a huge Texas cattle ranch. Not sleazy or obvious like "Dallas"--thus perhaps doomed to fail in the ratings, "Yellow Rose" treats its characters, randy though they may be, and its audience, with respect. Mini-Series/Specials

After years of delay, ABC will finally show "The Mystic Warrior," originally called "Hanta Yo," which aspires to be the "Roots" of the American Indian. The five-hour mini-series, based on Ruth Beebe Hill's novel, was produced by David L. Wolper and Stan Margulies, who performed similar functions on "The Thorn Birds." Also in production is a new six-hour version of "The Last Days of Pompeii."

ABC movies to be seen during the season include the first TV movie on the subject of incest, "Something About Amelia"; Jane Fonda's TV movie debut in "The Dollmaker" about the hardships of a transplanted Kentucky farm woman (in publicity stills, Jane looks like something out of a Dorothea Lange photograph); "The Look" (formerly "Male Model") with Joan Collins panting after Jon-Erik Hexum (Oct. 9); "The Day After," an already controversial drama about the effects of nuclear attack on a midwestern town (Nov. 20), and, risking the royalest raspberries of the season, Ann-Margret as Blanche Dubois in a new production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Mini-series scheduled by CBS during the season include six hours of "Chiefs," starring Charlton Heston, about scandal afflicting a small-town police department (Nov. 13, 15 and 16); eight hours of "George Washington," the first major treatment on film of Washington's life and era, and six hours of "Robert Kennedy and His Times," part of an overall Kennedy binge during the season ahead.

CBS movies will star Albert Finney as "John Paul II" (Nov. 20); Treat Williams as Jack "Dempsey" (Sept. 28); Malcolm McDowell as "Arthur the King", and Edward Asner as journalist Stewart Alsop in "Anatomy of an Illness."

The mini-series agenda at NBC is led by the seven-hour dramatization, "Kennedy," on the life and presidency of John F. Kennedy and including a reenactment of his assassination. The mini-series, airing Nov. 20-22, stars Martin Sheen as John Kennedy and Blair Brown as Jackie. E.G. Marshall plays Joseph P. Kennedy and Geraldine Fitzgerald his wife Rose. Other scheduled multi-part dramas include "Princess Daisy" (four hours, Nov. 6 and 7), from the Judith Krantz best seller, and a six-hour continuation of last year's cliffhanger "V," about Nazi aliens from outer space.

NBC movies range from the hotsy-totsy "Sessions," with Veronica Hamel as a chi-chi call girl (Sept. 26), to "Adam," with Hamel's "Hill Street" costar Daniel J. Travanti as a father whose young son disappears (Oct. 10), to the tantalizingly titled "Police Woman Centerfold" (Oct. 17) and "Women of San Quentin" (Oct. 23), to John Korty's "A Haunting Passion," about a woman pursued by her dead lover (Oct. 24) to "The Great Commercial Caper Chase," the first TV movie to be based on a series of commercials, Miller Lite's beer bellylaughers. PBS

More of the same old brie and Chablis from the Public Broadcasting Service this year, which has a numbingly undistinguished schedule of programs, including the return of French chef Julia Child in "Dinner at Julia's"--surely just what the "public" is hungering for.

There are, however, highlights on the public TV horizon, especially the possible TV milestone "Vietnam: A Television History," a 13-hour filmed account of the war and how the U.S. got into it, that premieres on two successive nights, Oct. 4 and 5, and continues weekly after that. PBS will also offer a mini-series of sorts, Jan Troell's movies "The Emigrants" and "The New Land," with Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, spliced together and airing on three consecutive nights in early October.

Nicholas Johnson, once the lonely maverick progressive on the Federal Communications Commission, will host "The New Tech Times," a consumer-oriented guide to the blossoming video age, and, proving that even public television can make strange bedfellows, Nancy Reagan will host "The Chemical People," a two-part anti-drug tract in November. A new musical version of "Alice in Wonderland," one that bombed on Broadway last year, will lead off the season of "Great Performances" on Monday, Oct. 3, with Kate Burton and her father Richard among the cast.

The seven-part "Pictures," about the British film industry during the silent '20s, is the season premiere for "Masterpiece Theater" on Sunday, Oct. 2 at 9 p.m. Other serials under the "Masterpiece" umbrella this season include a 10-part dramatization of "The Citadel" (once an MGM movie starring Robert Donat); a six-part comedy called "The Irish P.M."; a two-part "Tale of Beatrix Potter," about the famous fairy-tale writer, and an eight-part "Nancy Astor," with Lisa Harrow as the first, and so far only, Virginia belle elected to Parliament.