You will learn to compound happiness out of small increments of mindless pleasure. Jay McInerney, "Bright Lights, Big City"
A new television season. What tiny little droplets of hopefulness it doth bead on the American soul. Johnny Carson asked his studio audience recently, "How many of you are looking forward to the new TV season?"
No one applauded.
And yet more cause for optimism exists this year than usual. There is virtually no chance that 1985-86 will be the worst television season ever. One good reason is fear, the fuel that networks run on. Fearful of inroads into their viewership made by pay TV, cable TV, and above all the home video recorder, networks are pulling out certain stops in an effort to stop it.
Perhaps the stop most noticeably pulled out is NBC's arrangement with Steven Spielberg to executive-produce "Amazing Stories," an uncommonly ambitious $44 million investment designed not only to give NBC ratings dominance on Sunday nights, long owned by CBS, but also to create the kind of shimmery tumult that will draw viewers back to networks generally. If it doesn't work, it will be fiasco on a grand scale. If it does, it will be triumph on a grand scale.
Either way, it is encouraging to find anything on a grand scale being undertaken for television.
"Amazing Stories" spearheads the return of the anthology program to network prime time. Three others will struggle for survival: "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" on NBC and "The Twilight Zone" and "George Burns Comedy Week" on CBS. The success of even one would help bring down the tyranny of the continuing-character shows that monopolize prime time and so lend themselves to repetitious inanity. In the '50s, anthologies provided many of TV's finest hours.
Of the 20 new weekly programs to leap, or crawl, from network drawing boards onto the air as the season gets under way, most will be doomed to a richly deserved ignominy. But a few are worth watching, if not worth staying home to see. NBC's "Golden Girls" is the best new comedy of the year (it premiered last night), perhaps because it bucks the trend toward domestic, friendly sitcoms made in the image of "The Cosby Show." To the contrary, "Golden Girls" is contrary -- enticingly snide and brittle.
The most imitated of last season's hits is probably "Miami Vice"; hardly anyone can get beat up on TV anymore without a rock tune on the sound track, and fashion-conscious crime fighting teams are proliferating. But it's "The Equalizer," on CBS, that looks to be the best new action series of the year, in part because it eschews the chic cliche's; the hero is a seasoned old pro, not a callow young hunk. While most other programs are forgettably trifling, there does seem to be a smaller amount of deplorably execrable swill than usual. This year's mediocrity is more competent than last year's.
Both "Golden Girls" and "The Equalizer" feature characters of advanced years who are still active and thriving, as do the George Burns show and "Our Family Honor." Combine this with the trend back to comparatively wholesome family comedy and you get a profile of what seems another distinctly Reagan Season on prime-time TV.
In terms of Sixth Avenue Melodrama, life and strife among the networks, ABC enters the season in its worst shape since the early '70s, and none of its new fall programs shows any sign of creative innovation. They were selected by the same discredited B-team that produced last season's sorry losers. Nevertheless, ABC's fortunes are almost certain to improve. "Moonlighting," one program that does have life and sparkle, premiered quietly last spring but has been building audiences all summer. Slotted on Tuesday nights opposite NBC's marginal hit "Riptide," the program could constitute the stirrings of an ABC comeback. Tuesday night is a two-network race from which CBS has excluded itself with a laggardly lineup. Recession has already hit ABC. Layoffs and cutbacks are proliferating, perhaps in the hopes of impressing the parsimonious new owners, Capital Cities Inc., which bought ABC Inc. last year. Instead of taking risks, at least as the season begins, ABC is falling back on old standbys: cops, kids and catfights.
The bigger news in network competition centers on NBC's lust to wrest first place from CBS. It would be only the fourth time in three decades that the champ lost its crown, and two of those times, ABC was the winner (the last season NBC won was 1970-71). Private projections being circulated within the network, an NBC source says, declare that NBC will win the season, but publicly NBC doesn't want to utter words on which executives may later have to dine. (NBC and CBS may have new ownership worries, too; still more CBS takeover rumors are now circulating in the industry, and an RCA merger with entertainment conglomerate MCA appears to be in the offing. RCA owns NBC. MCA owns Universal Studios).
In terms of programming, CBS is playing it careful, conservative and, arrogant. While NBC and ABC scramble for young affluents, CBS executives say, they will continue to court the stable, mainstream older audience. Some broadcasting insiders think this will prove an undoing. NBC's claims to being the "quality" network ring rather hollow, but its executives have shown chutzpah and moxie and, better still, a willingness to let producers call their own shots. NBC well may win the season and get the good deed citation as well.
In the old days, and there seem to be more of those than ever, disc jockeys and announcers cautioned viewers and listeners: "Don't touch that dial; stick around and smile." That would sound a bit naive in these bottom-line, cost-effective '80s. Still, given the encouraging developments, it would be folly to touch that dial until all hope of a smile has decisively paled. Who knows? There may be enough small increments of mindless pleasure from which to compound happiness.
Detailed descriptions of the increments follow. New ABC Shows
"Growing Pains," seemingly ABC's blatant "Cosby" imitation, probably owes more to "Family Ties," indicating ABC doesn't even know which ideas to steal. Alan Thicke, whose talke show ye flopped, plays a psychiatrist trying to raise three children now that wife Maggie (Joanna Kerns) has chosen to resume her career as a reporter. The premiere ends with Thicke pulling down his pants and "mooning" his wife in the kitchen. Earlier, one child insulting another could be addressing the show: "You give a new meaning to the word 'vacuous.' " (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m., premiering Sept. 24).
"Our Family Honor." Worthless tripe masquerading as meaningful drama and using fake familial themes to dignify what is just another network blood bath, this one involving two combative New York clans. One consists of a police commissioner and his horde, the other a dotty mobster and his clan. The two patriarchs, well played by Kenneth McMillan and Eli Wallach, are supposed to have grown up together on the streets of New York. Trite, corny and mercilessly violent. (Tuesdays, 10 p.m., premiering with a two-hour opener at 9 p.m. Sept. 17).
"The Insiders" takes pains to resemble "Miami Vice": two pains, actually -- Nick Campbell and Stoney Jackson as a salt-and-pepper sleuthing team, one an investigative reporter, the other a crafty ex-con. Lots of violence videos interpolated into preposteroso plots, plus the usual overripe dialogue, to wit, "You just even cough, I'm gonna blow your face to Pittsburgh." On the whole, my face would rather be in Philadelphia. But not in front of a TV set watching this stale show. (Wednesdays, 8 p.m., Sept. 25).
"Lady Blue." Producer David Gerber's baldly campy ultra-violent cop show about a woman detective who shoots first and checks her lipstick later. The series will be killing time, as well as bad guys, until "Dynasty II: The Colbys," as self-explanatory as a TV title can get, moves into this time slot for its November premiere. If "Lady B" succeeds, she will be moved elsewhere or held in reserve as replacement for a flop. (Thursdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 26).
"Spenser: For Hire" revives Robert "Vegas" Urich for yet another rock 'em/sock 'em about a very private eye (born in a popular series of detective novels by Robert Parker) who plays by his own rules and dances to his own tune and beats up badduns with his own fists. He's the detective saint of Boston, greeting clients with, "You look like you hurt; wanna sit down?" His only foible: He cares, cares, cares. Viewers won't won't won't. (Fridays, 10 p.m., Sept. 20).
"Hollywood Beat," which should probably have been called "LaBrea Vice," is producer Aaron Spelling's attempt to ape NBC's cool-hot cop opera. Two undercover flatfeet prowl the seediest parts of L.A., befriending quixotic streetfolk and pounding miscreants into pulps. (Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sept. 21).
"Lime Street." When it comes to seediest parts of L.A., Robert Wagner takes a back seat to no one. In this, his umpty-umpth starring vehicle, R.J. plays J.G. -- Culver, that is, crack insurance investigator. He has a British sidekick a la "Magnum, P.I.," and lives on a "sprawling ranch in Virginia's horse country," ABC says. The late Samantha Smith completed five episodes in the role of Culver's eldest daughter before her recent death in a plane crash. (Saturdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 22).
"MacGyver." ABC is big on weird spellings this year. MacGyver with a Y, like Spenser with an S, is a maverick loner and do-gooder. His specialty is rescuing silly people from perilous scraps with the help of everyday commodities like Hershey bars and bobby pins. Watching him work is as exciting as witnessing home repair firsthand. Co-executive producer is Henry Winkler. (Sundays, 8 p.m., Sept. 29). New CBS Shows
"Hometown." The first piece of weekly nostalgia for the '80s, or at least the '80s as haven for those still trying to recover from the '60s, was also the first new fall show to premiere; it bowed, and bow-wowed, in August. A weak and whiny "Big Chill" popsicle about soulful pals, it began its run on Thursday nights so as to build an audience when it moves to Tuesdays, opposite "The A-Team." Likely to be one of the first shows to fold its tent and retreat. (Tuesdays, 8 p.m., as of Sept. 24).
"Stir Crazy" introduces likable Larry Riley and Joseph Guzaldo in the roles created for the film comedy by Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. For once, the TV versions are almost as good as the originals (indeed, in Wilder's case, better), and this one-hour comedy/adventure tale of buddies wrongfully sent up the river, and frantically trying to get back down it, has appealing possibilities. The premiere is stolen by Polly Holliday in the role of a woman cop so tough that she hates "Disney World, Minnesota and Mary Lou Retton." (Wednesdays, 8 p.m., premiering Sept. 18).
"Charlie & Company" dutifully misses the whole point of "The Cosby Show" in attempting to imitate it. Instead of a strong, hearty father figure, Flip Wilson seems cut from the mold of '50s sitcom dads: helpless, foolish and bullied by his children. Worse, in the papa role Flip exudes all the warmth of Claus von Bu low. Gladys Knight, sans Pips, plays his wife in this negligible drag. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 18).
"George Burns Comedy Week," TV's first modern comedy anthology show, features the titular star only in a nominal host role. The premiere features the hilarious and versatile Catherine O'Hara ("SCTV") in a daft charmer about a woman who assumes new identities willy-nilly and leads a cop (Tim Matheson) on a merry chase. It's so good, it ought to be a series, with the risky anthology idea scrapped. Steve Martin is co-executive producer. (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 18).
"The Equalizer." Welcome refreshment for the crime show genre, as handsomely produced as "Kojak" with a trace of the class that went into "The Avengers." As a free-lance vigilante who's left the CIA, Edward Woodward is likely to become the season's most unlikely heartthrob. A one-man panacea for urban crime and even urban angst, he's the first new wrinkle (in fact, he has several of them) to come along the action trail in years. The thinking viewer's good guy. (Wednesdays, 10 p.m., Sept. 18).
"The Twilight Zone." Sci-fi cult figures Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson are among the contributors to this ambitious revival of the 1959-65 Rod Serling classic anthology. The stories will be new, eerie, playful, and parceled out three per episode. On the premiere, Robert Klein wakes up in a world where familiar old words have suddenly acquired completely new meanings, and Melinda Dillon discovers she can stop almost anything with an ancient magic charm. The producers intended this to be a 10 o'clock show; CBS insisted on an 8 o'clock time slot, so kiddies will have to be snared if the program is to survive. (Fridays, 8 p.m., Sept. 27). New NBC Shows
"Hell Town." Father Noah "Hardstep" Rivers is not your average movie priest. He drinks beer, says "ain't" a lot, beats up pushers, gambles on games of pool and likes to watch sexy girls dance. But as surly Robert Blake plays him, he's the kind of guy you believe in, if you're feeling wildly gullible, anyway. Retrological hokum about life in a parlous parish, "Hell Town" is cornier than Orville Redenbacher's warehouse, yet it succeeds on the strength of venerable movie cliche's and Blake's own daunting gall. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., premiered Sept. 11).
"Misfits of Science." Take a frozen zombie who roams the earth searching for Amelia Earhart, a 7-foot-4 giant who shrinks to Walkman size for 14 minutes at a time, a rock guitarist who has 20,000 volts up his sleeve, and a few daffy young technophiles, and what have you got? A Saturday morning cartoon, that's what, except NBC slotted this live-action version in prime time. A dumb-facetious adventure show from the network that gave you "Supertrain," and thus a reminder: you can take NBC out of the basement, but you can't take debasement out of NBC. (Fridays, 9 p.m. premiering Oct. 4).
"Golden Girls," a snappy, crackly populist comedy about four now-single women living together in Miami, stars Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, all of whom launch their zingers with brash aplomb. Created by Susan Harris, of "Soap" fame, this show also indulges in sick humor, dark humor, and coarse jokes, but the characters have honest dimension, and their brittleness comes across as a shrewd defense against an essentially indifferent world. Anyway, it's funny. (Saturdays, 9 p.m., premiered Sept. 14).
"227," a weak urban sitcom about denizens of a colorful apartment house, perks up whenever star Marla Gibbs, so long the sassy maid on "The Jeffersons," bounces an insult off one of the other tenants. This does not happen often enough. (Saturdays, 9:30 p.m., premiered Sept. 14).
"Amazing Stories." Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg -- didn't he make a movie about a shark once? NBC is banking heavily on Spielberg's popularity as a one-man leisure-time conglomerate to lure viewers to a determinedly unknown quantity, an anthology of weird tales which has not been screened in advance for advertisers or the press. Some shows will be whimsical, Spielberg has said, others serious; the word in Hollywood is that the whimsies are flimsy but the serious shows super. All will have Twilight-Zoney elements. One will be in black and white, two will be directed by Spielberg himself, and the impresario promised just the other day, "They're all amazing. We certainly won't disappoint in that department." (Sundays, 8 p.m., Sept. 29).
"Alfred Hitchcock Presents." It's not easy to "present" when you're dead, but like the antic corpse in his own "The Trouble with Harry," Hitchcock, who died in 1979, remains posthumously ubiquitous. NBC's revival of the long-running black-and-white anthology will feature old stories recycled and new ones in creepy or jocular veins. "Hitch" himself will introduce the shows. His old intros from the original series have been put through a computer and "colorized" for the '80s. (Sundays, 8:30 p.m., Sept. 29). $&% Movies and Mini-series
ABC's biggest mini-series this season are two 12-hour serializations of American history according to John Jakes: "North and South," probably airing in November, and "Love and War," to air next spring. Other multiparters include a six-hour re-examination of "Lawrence of Arabia"; a five-hour version of Michael Korda's "Queenie," on the life of Merle Oberon; and Shirley MacLaine as her dubitable self, "Out on a Limb" for five hours.
TV movies to air on ABC this season include "The Betty Ford Story," about the former First Lady; "The Pete Gray Story," about the first one-armed baseball player; and "The Jeanne Eckmann Story," about a raped nun and her child. Other movies will deal with misbbehaving teenagers, alcoholism, and poverty. A live drama, "The Execution of Raymond Graham," recounts the last two hours in the life of a condemned murderer.
CBS traditionally has the miniest of the mini-series. Nothing the network has scheduled for this season sounds terribly imposing. However, some 37 stars are promised for a new four-hour adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland" (among them, Shelley Winters as a dodo bird). Peter Strauss and Sam Neill play combative tycoons in the seven-hour "Kane & Abel"; the inescapable Joan Collins stars in the seven-hour "Sins" ("The famed couturier Valentino has created Miss Collins' contemporary clothes," CBS reports); and Mr. Mini-series, Richard Chamberlain, plays explorer in "Dream West," a seven-hour "sprawling saga," saith the network.
Movies made for CBS will deal with teenage prostitutes ("Children of the Night"), juvenile delinquents ("North Beach and Rawhide") and homosexuality ("Welcome Home, Bobby"). George C. Scott will play Gen. George S. Patton again in "The Last Days of Patton"; Lucille Ball will play a scraggly bag lady in "Stone Pillow"; Kirk Douglas will play an abused nursing home patient in "Amos" (airing Sunday, Sept. 29); three generations of Mitchums, including Robert, will team for "Promises to Keep"; and Jackie Gleason will be re-united with Art Carney for "Izzy and Moe."
George C. Scott pops up on NBC as well, in that network's seven-hour mini-series "Mussolini: The Untold Story." But the big NBC mini-series will be "Peter the Great," a nine-hour epic filmed in the Soviet Union and starring Vanessa Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, and Maximilian Schell as great Pete.
TV movies have long been forums for examination of current social problems. This season, NBC's films will include "An Early Frost," about a family's ordeal when it is learned a son is dying of AIDS. Other NBC movies include "John and Yoko: A Love Story"; Liza Minnelli in "Intensive Care"; an adaptation of Antoinette Giancana's "Mafia Princess"; Raymond Burr in the first of three movies marking "The Return of Perry Mason"; and "Under Siege," a thriller about terrorism cowritten by novice screenwriter Bob Woodward. Public Television
Reagan Administration budget cuts have seriously cramped public TV's style. Nevertheless, space will be found for "The Creation of the Universe" (90 minutes on Nov. 20), "Comet Halley" (60 minutes on Nov. 26) and a delightful comedy-magic special "Penn & Teller Go Public" (30 minutes on Oct. 23). "War: A Commentary by Gwynne Dyer," a seven-part history of world militarism, premieres Tuesday, Oct. 1. Larry Hagman of "Dallas" hosts the eight-part "Lone Star: A Television History of Texas" later in the season. "Masterpiece Theater" offerings include an eight-part serialization of Dickens' "Bleak House."
Washington's WETA is channeling several programs to the PBS schedule, including "The Skin Horse" (Oct. 16), a British film that deals with "the sexuality and emotional life of severely disabled people"; three hour-long tours of the "Treasure Houses of Britain" (premiering Dec. 16); and "Wartime in Washington," a WETA production hosted by Daniel Schorr. Cable Television
Movie blockbusters certain or likely to turn on on pay TV this season include "The Terminator" (HBO), "Beverly Hills Cop" (Showtime) and "Ghostbusters" (both). Among HBO's original films this season is "Murrow," a career biography of CBS' great Edward R., to be played by Daniel J. Travanti. Showtime's showpiece is the 52-week unveiling of "The Honeymooners -- The Lost Episodes," which premiered in late summer, but the network is also alertly reviving Larry Gelbart's "United States," a critically praised comedy-drama NBC callously decapitated in 1980.
Dick Cavett returns to TV via the USA Cable Network for a new weekly talk-comedy hour beginning Monday, Sept. 30, and USA has bought up the old episodes of a wonderful comedy series James L. Brooks did for an ungrateful ABC in 1981, "The Associates," which stars Martin Short and re-premieres Wednesday, Oct. 2.
The most controversial mini-series of the year may well prove to be "The Borgias," a 10-episode BBC saga about that randy Renaissance clan. A&E promises "incest, illegitimacy and murder" as part of this story, which premieres Wednesday, Oct. 2 at 9 p.m.