Everything old is new again Television: Networks break no new ground this season, but some shows offer provocative ideas in terms of gender, race and generation.

September 15, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

In the pilot episode of "Suddenly Susan" -- a new NBC sitcom starring Brooke Shields as a young woman suddenly on her own after leaving her fiance -- the lead character finds herself in bed with only the remote control for company.

She starts channel-surfing with the device, and one of the first things she hits upon is the opening of a rerun of the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show." As the chorus of voices on Susan's television assures Mary, "You're going to make it after all," our point of view is shifted from looking at Susan on the bed to showing us Mary on the screen and back again. The connection that the producers want us to make of Susan as Mary is hard to miss.

It might not quite qualify as what Abraham Lincoln called "mystic chords of memory," but the networks are working much of the same cognitive territory with many of their 39 new series this season. New characters have been created in the image and likeness of characters from television's past in hopes that they will trigger shared memories, warm feelings and big ratings.

The conventional story line for the new season is that viewers tuned out the networks last year because they had so many young, unknown actors in so many clones of NBC's "Friends" that you couldn't tell one from the other. Only six of the last season's 43 new shows survived, and combined audience share for NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox dropped to an all-time low. So, this year, the pendulum swings back with older stars, like Bill Cosby and Ted Danson on CBS, and familiar faces, like Michael J. Fox on ABC and Shields on NBC. End of story and case closed.

The story line is accurate as far as it goes. But the superficial, kneejerk assessment that often accompanies it is misleading. To critics, who generally like new and edgy, old and familiar often means bad and boring.

It is true that the networks are offering no groundbreaking series -- like "The Simpsons," "The X-Files," "Roseanne" or even "Murder One" -- but there are cultural patterns among the new shows that are genuinely provocative in terms of what commercial television will be saying this year about gender, race and generation.

In terms of gender, a story line that might be called "The Mary Narrative" -- taking its name from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which debuted 26 years ago -- continues to dominate sitcoms about young women. The question is whether it has become a kind of mono-myth, rich in meaning and psychic energy for some young women making the passage into adulthood, or merely a tired, sitcom cliche from an industry sadly out of touch with where women are today.

On race, there are more black sitcoms than ever, but some

analysts fear they have been ghetto-ized to less-widely-viewed networks like UPN, while old-line broadcast networks become increasingly less diverse, like NBC on Thursday nights. Meanwhile, a generation of younger viewers is offered a wave of paranoid dramas based on Oliver-Stone-like conspiracy theories, which say the growing darkness is caused by the sins of their parents.

Ultimately, the most critical assessment of the new season is not the pseudo-aesthetic one that judges the shows somehow worse than last year. Instead, it is the culturally-based critique that finds new series speaking mainly to the differences among us -- making for network television that separates rather than unites its audience members.

Familiar faces are magnets

Since such cultural patterns are usually the by-product of decisions made for business reasons, any analysis of the new network season needs to start with the business of bringing back old stars and familiar faces.

"Viewers seek magnets for navigation -- finding their way and deciding what they are going to watch among all the program choices," said George Schweitzer, CBS executive vice president for marketing. "Viewers are looking for something to grab onto in those magnets, and this year, star power is that for us."

CBS is the network most committed to the familiar-faces strategy, since it was the biggest loser last year in its pursuit of youth. In losing some of its traditional baby-boomer and 50-plus audience, CBS fell to an all-time audience low.

"Star-power is a philosophy that fits with our demographic strength," said Les Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment. "Our research has showed us that, with older viewers, familiarity is a good thing."

So, six of the 10 new CBS series feature older, familiar faces who once starred in hit television series: Cosby and Phylicia Rashad in "Cosby," Danson along with Mary Steenburgen in "Ink," Rhea Perlman in "Pearl," Gerald McRaney on "Promised Land," Ken Olin and Jason Gedrick in "EZ Streets" and Peter Strauss in "Maloney."

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