It will be a TV season of comedies. It will be a season for teens. Music will pipe up in the darndest places, at the strangest times. Innovations will be offered by producers who have turned the offbeat into the standard.
There will be TV series adapted from successful movies. There will be one made from a comic book. And there surely will be stars to discover.
Those are the themes, styles and possibilities to be found this fall in prime time among the avalanche of 34 news series competing for the dwindling number of viewers who watch the four broadcast networks.
The networks are banking on these shows, and a number of key returnees, to lure viewers back to the tube. And among the multitude, there are indeed some temptations. SUNDAY
Where have all the Fox shows gone? Gone to graveyards, some of them, like the cult favorite "Alien Nation." But gone as well to help fill Thursday and Friday nights, the latest additions to Fox's evenings of programming. Only Tuesday and Wednesday remain vacant on the Fox calendar.
Fox deploys 10 of the 34 new shows offered this fall by the broadcast networks, and half of those are penciled in on Sunday night.
"In an ideal world, we'd like to have no new shows," said Peter Chernin, president of the Fox Entertainment Group. "We had shows in development that we felt extremely positive about. We felt we had greater potential with those than by renewing existing shows."
Leading the potential parade for Fox is "True Colors," featuring Frankie Faison and Stephanie Faracy as an interracial couple who bring three children to the marriage. Nancy Walker plays the crabby Grandma Sara, caught in a household that crosses three generations, two races and divides 50-50 male-female. She doesn't know what to make of it all. A lot of viewers won't either. Interracial romance is not unprecedented on television, but when did you last see a black man kiss a white woman in prime time?
Corin Nemec has the lead in "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," scheming his way through high school in what sounds like a "Ferris Bueller" knockoff. "Get A Life" gives Chris Elliott a chance to work with his comedy-king father, Bob Elliott (of Bob and Ray), and asks the question, "Isn't 30 a bit old to still be a paperboy?" Excuse me, that's head paperboy. Howie Mandel has the lead in "Good Grief," a comedy built around the operation of a mortuary. In "Against the Law," Michael O'Keefe plays a socially and professionally alienated attorney who stays just this side of the law in helping his clients.
"I have no idea how they'll do against the other shows that night," said Chernin. "I'm far more productive spending my time making these shows as good as possible."
"Sunday's a night of questions for all the networks," said Warren Littlefield, president, NBC Entertainment. NBC has two new shows that night: "Hull High," one of four new series based in high school, this one with music and production numbers added; and "Lifestories," an anthology dealing with what happens when medical crises arise.
"The first question about Sunday," said Littlefield, "is whether moving 'The Simpsons' will hurt what was starting to look like a solid lineup for Fox. Now you have to see if they can maintain momentum without it."
Littlefield wondered whether the ABC video lineup would continue to intrigue viewers. "America's Funniest Home Videos" has a new candid-video companion piece, "America's Funniest People." "'Hull' is young, hip and hot," said Littlefield, "and there will be a good audience for that show."
If the video twins fail to please, Littlefield hopes for spillover for "Lifestories," a series that has received mixed early reviews. "Young adults may be looking for more than what's out there," he said.
He hopes so, of course, because CBS, which stands pat on Sunday, has owned the night. The venerable "60 Minutes" is, well, "60 Minutes," and Angela Lansbury will appear in more episodes of "Murder, She Wrote" this season than she did last. MONDAY
"The real competitive matchup on Monday is between NBC and CBS at 8," said Littlefield. And an intriguing contest it is to see who can grab the Monday night comedy audience. CBS pits "Uncle Buck," so far best known as the show that opened with a little kid saying, "Miles, you suck," against NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." Both series bank on relative TV unknowns to carry the show.
Standup comic Kevin Meaney draws the tough task of making viewers forget they ever saw John Candy play Buck in the theatrical film. Meaney is aided and abetted by Audrey Meadows, making a promising return to series television as the tart-tongued grandmother of the children Uncle Buck inherits.
"What's exciting about 'Uncle Buck,'" said Peter Tortorici, senior vice president, program planning, CBS Entertainment, "is having Tim O'Donnell, one of the producers of 'Growing Pains,' available to run that show for us."
Will Smith, a Grammy-winning rap artist known as Fresh Prince, makes his TV debut as a very hip kid from West Philadelphia sent to live with his wealthy relatives in Bel Air. Quincy Jones, Andy Borowitz ("Day By Day"), Susan Borowitz ("Family Ties") and Kevin Wendle ("Totally Hidden Video") are the executive producers. The series pilot was one of the season's funniest and suggested interesting possibilities.
Following "Prince," Charlie Schlatter takes on the Matthew Broderick role of "Ferris Bueller," in another TV knockoff of a theatrical film. It plays opposite CBS's "Major Dad," making for some tough comedy choices.
Later in the evening, CBS offers "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," an hour-long drama reuniting two thirds of the trio that made "Cagney & Lacey" a respected show. Sharon Gless stars as a divorced attorney who returns to the workplace as a public defender. Barney Rosenzweig is the producer. TUESDAY
NBC has the only new program on this night. "If we can find some success at 10," said Littlefield, "we're looking to be competitive on the evening" with ABC, which owns Tuesday. In "Law and Order," a crime drama set in New York, policemen George Dzundza and Chris Noth bust 'em and prosecutors Michael Moriarty and Richard Brooks try 'em. The series relies on gritty realism for its appeal. "The story is very much the star," said Littlefield. WEDNESDAY
Things get verrry interesting this evening. The question: Can a tough crime drama with overtones of "Hill Street Blues" be turned into a musical? That's what Steven Bochco, originator of "Hill Street," "L.A. Law" and "Hooperman," is trying to do. "I love 'Cop Rock,'" said Ted Harbert, executive vice president, prime time, ABC Entertainment. "It might take a while to catch on, but we think it's worth the audience time to get acquainted with it. We think they'll love it." It looks like a real stretch, but then Bochco made a number of viewers accept the idea of a teenage doctor, and "Doogie Howser, M.D." is still on the air.
ABC leads into "Cop Rock" with a new comedy, "Married People," in which three generations share a Harlem brownstone. Ray Aranha and Barbara Montgomery run the place; yuppie couple Jay Thomas and Bess Armstrong and newlyweds Chris Young and Megan Gallivan are tenants. "Wednesday and Saturday nights are priorities for us," said Harbert, whose network is offering only five new shows. "I can make a case that on every other night we're relatively good."
CBS leads off the evening with "Lenny," introducing another standup comic, Lenny Clarke, to the largest audience he's ever had. Given his hard-hat job, it's difficult not to see him as a male Roseanne. Before "Evening Shade" took shape for Friday night, CBS was heaping attention on this show, seemingly relying on it to carry the network to respectability at 8 p.m., a timeslot the network has found hard to program recently.
"Lenny" is produced by Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas and Don Reo; Witt-Thomas has had success from "Soap" to "The Golden Girls." "TV has always been a producer-driven medium," said Tortorici. "You need to be in business with people who can reliably deliver 22 shows a year. It's not like features where getting it done once, right, is the trick. We've succeeded in getting a lot of talented people to work for us."
CBS had done that just since the first of the year, when Jeff Sagansky was named president of CBS Entertainment. Tortorici has had his job since then too. CBS ends its evening with "WIOU," a drama centered on a big-city TV station struggling to remain solvent. John Shea, as a bedeviled news director, heads an ensemble cast.
NBC hopes "The Fanelli Boys" will take the comedy crowd from "Doogie Howser." Ann Guilbert plays an Italian widow intent on Florida retirement who decides to remain in Brooklyn and put her sons' lives back together. THURSDAY
Fox checks in with "Babes," a sitcom built around three overweight sisters who live together. It poses the question: Are fat jokes funny, even if the women are laughing at themselves? It's followed by "Class of Beverly Hills," a teen drama in which twins move from Minneapolis to Beverly Hills -- it's definitely the season for teen migration to California. Director Tim Hunter ("The River's Edge") and producer Aaron Spelling are behind this tale of culture shock.
CBS, which has a new 8 p.m. show every night save two, offers "The Flash," a comic book series that promises dazzling special effects -- at a price. The four costumes worn (out) by series star John Wesley Shipp in the pilot alone cost a reported $100,000. Shipp plays a scientist who's been metabolically altered in a lab accident and turned into the world's fastest human.
"We thought it would be a good alternative to 'Cosby,'" said Tortorici. "Unfortunately, Fox thought the same and moved 'The Simpsons' into the same period. We're never going to attract youngsters to the set unless we offer something that's fun to look at," he said, referring to the network's persistent problem of attracting young viewers.
"The Flash" is followed by "Sons and Daughters," with Lucie Arnaz heading an ensemble cast as a single mom surrounded by an array of family members. "It's an interesting line of drama and comedy," said Tortorici. "It's a tough time period, but there's a chance to attract younger adult women." It's up against "Cheers," which is likely to be the season's top-rated program.
ABC's competition for "Cheers" is "Gabriel's Fire," starring James Earl Jones as an ex-cop released after two decades in prison. He becomes an investigator, teamed with attorney Laila Robins. A lot is being demanded of the formidable Jones. One vignette discussed by the show's producers would have him go to a record shop, buy a CD and take it home and frame it: He would see it as a work of art rather than realize it contained music. Was he in a prison or a cloister? FRIDAY
"'Evening Shade' is the kind of show that can re-establish CBS in the mind of viewers," said Tortorici. He reflects the network euphoria over a show that has been in production barely a month. Its pedigree is impressive: Linda Bloodworth-Thomason is producing and writing, as she did on "Designing Women."
Burt Reynolds has his first sitcom role as a former pro football player returning to Evening Shade, Ark., to coach the high school team. And he's surrounded by an elegant cast: Marilu Henner is his wife; and there's Elizabeth Ashley, Charles Durning, Ossie Davis, Hal Holbrook, etc. "It can be a show that will be much talked about and will ultimately be one of the best I've seen come out of this place in some time," said Tortorici.
CBS also offers "Over My Dead Body," a mystery co-created by Bill Link ("Colombo," "Murder, She Wrote") and teaming Edward Woodward with newcomer Jessica Lundy. He's a burned-out mystery writer; she's an ambitous obit writer with a nose for trouble. Lundy's sparkle saves this show from being "Murder, He Wrote."
ABC offers "Going Places," in which four writers head -- you guessed it -- for California to work on a TV show. And Fox has "D.E.A.," based on the exploits of the Drug Enforcement Administration. SATURDAY
Ed Begley, Jr. takes on the Steve Martin role in "Parenthood," NBC's candidate to lead off its strong Saturday night. It's followed by "Working It Out," a comedy pairing Jane Curtin and Stephen Collins as two divorced people cautiously developing a relationship. Both shows seem solid and should set up the audience for "The Golden Girls."
NBC ends the evening with "American Dreamer." Robert Urich, who teamed with Avery Brooks in "Spenser: For Hire," once more finds himself with a strong supporting player in Carol Kane. He's a single dad working as a columnist and she's his assistant. He tends to daydream, and when he does, he tells the viewing audience about it. "Looking at the competition in the four-network environment," said Littlefield, "we can win."
Contending are Fox, with "Haywire," a companion piece to "Totally Hidden Video," and "American Chronicles," a promising, offbeat series of 30-minute documentaries from David Lynch and Mark Frost, purveyors of "Twin Peaks." ABC has moved returnees "China Beach" and "Twin Peaks" to Saturday, hoping to lure viewers away from cable, their VCRs and other distractions.
CBS checks in with "Family Man," featuring Gregory Harrison as a widowed firefighter bringing up four children, and "E.A.R.T.H. Force." Gil ("Buck Rogers") Gerard plays a combat surgeon who heads the "Force" team, out to save the planet's environment. "It's a traditional action show," said Tortorici, "with a '90s topic. If we tell interesting stories that have the hook of what we're doing to the planet, it's an opportunity to improve our time period performance." And maybe improve the planet, too.