The new TV season begins with blasts from the past

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

IT'S NOT JUST the nostalgia shows that are heading back to the future on television this fall. Five of this weekend's six new offerings seek to survive the current storm buffeting network television by mooring themselves to a buoy from the past.

The most obvious is "WKRP in Cincinnati" coming back in first-run syndication after a nine-year hiatus. But take NBC's two Sunday night shows. Both James Garner in "Man of the People" and Robert Guillaume in "Pacific Station" are essentially reprising roles that worked for them before.

"Nurses," NBC's new Saturday night show, is not only from the creator of "The Golden Girls" and "Empty Nest," it's also set in the same town, Miami, trying to tie itself to those two Saturday night stalwarts.

Then there's "P.S. I Luv U," a new CBS hour the likes of which you haven't seen in at least a decade.

Even the one show that's something new, "Eerie, Indiana," on NBC Sunday night, makes fun of the '50s in its debut.

Don't panic. This is the first weekend of the new season. For the most part, the better is yet to come.

"Man of the People": James Garner might have gone to the well one too many times. In "Man of the People," which debuts on Channel 2 (WMAR) Sunday night at 8:30, he plays yet another world-wearly anti-hero, of "The Rockford Files" and "Maverick" type.

But there's something a bit off-kilter here. For one, his character of Jim Doyle, a small-town con man who stumbles into the city council seat of his altruistic ex-wife when she dies, isn't a basically good-at-heart guy who accidentally does the right thing; he's a larcenous-at-heart guy who accidentally does the right thing, not just in spite of his intentions, but in spite of himself.

It's a subtle change, but it gives the character an edge that works against Garner's natural affability.

For another, the show itself seems ill-conceived. This no-laugh-track half hour is clearly supposed to play like a "dramedy." But it's written like a sitcom, with jokes that look silly without the canned chortles.

And the whole show seems slap--. Corrine Bohrer plays his ex-wife's assistant who drives Doyle crazy. Why doesn't he just fire her? In the three episodes available for preview, plot lines come and go willy-nilly, a sign of late-night re-writes and changes of direction in the editing room.

It's hard to write anything bad about Garner, but he should have stayed out of the sitcom business and gotten a deal like Peter Falk has. Three or four Rockford movies a year would keep everyone happy.

"Pacific Station": The same team of writers that last year turned an Italian family into a bunch of joke-tellers in "The Fanelli Boys" this year turns the residents of a police precinct into a bunch of joke-tellers in "Pacific Station," which premieres Sunday night at 8:30 on Channel 2.

The central funny man is Robert Guillaume, who (d)rolls his punch lines off the edge of a table just as he did for all those years as the butler in "Soap" and "Benson."

Guillaume is a straight-arrow veteran policeman who's teamed with a new-wave type, just back from psychiatric-leave re-grooving, played by Richard Libertini.

The station is peopled with comic characters, none more offensive than the lech played by Ron Leibman. Joel Murray, the crazed son in "Grand," gets some laughs as the inexperienced, politically connected precinct captain.

Indeed, everybody gets some laughs in "Pacific Station," but when it's over you're left feeling empty. The characters are so broad and shallow -- Libertini's is particularly unbelievable -- the situations so obviously contrived, that it's as if you've just watched a bunch of comedy writers trying out jokes instead of a television show.

"WKRP in Cincinnati": You can't go home again, but you can get to the suburbs. That seems to be the lesson of the revamped "WKRP in Cincinnati," which Channel 11 (WBAL) will run Saturday nights at 7:30 starting this weekend.

This reprise features original cast members Gordon Jump as station manager Arthur Carlson, Frank Bonner as sleazy ad salesman Herb Tarlek and Richard Sanders as wimpy newsman Les Nessman. All seem to recall their parts just like you remember how to ride a bicycle.

The new show opens as the old one did, with a new station manager arriving, this one played by Myketi Williamson of "Midnight Caller." He's one of many newcomers as WKRP also has a new morning team, husband and wife played by Michael Des Barres and Kathleen Garrett -- lovey-dovey to their listeners, bickering banshees off the mike -- and a sultry new late-night voice, Mona Loveland, played by Tawney Kitaen.

"WKRP" was never classic comedy. It was always a bit too farcical for that. But it was a solid sitcom with good characters and plenty of laughs. This new version can't re-create that right away, and it goes for too many cheap stunts to try to fill the void.

It gets in its worst trouble when it tries to go home again, bringing back original cast members Loni Anderson and Howard Hesseman for the second episode. The plot, which involves trying to keep Carlson's mother from selling the station, gets so twisted that it strains credulity well past the breaking point.

But the parts are in place to make this "WKRP in Cincinnati" a worthy re-creation.

"Eerie, Indiana": Now here's a welcome bit of inventiveness. NBC's "Eerie, Indiana," which begins its 7:30 Sunday night run this weekend on Channel 2 (WMAR), is like stumbling across "The Twilight Zone" in a 13-year-old's post-modern imagination.

Marshall Teller, played by "Dallas" veteran Omri Katz, has just moved from New Jersey to this Midwest burg. Where everyone else sees absurd normalcy, he sees absurd absurdity. In the pilot, he and a buddy break up a sinister ring of housewives selling a Tupperware-like product with a cult-like fanaticism.

Teller's family is played totally against sitcom type without resorting to silly caricatures. The mother's a domestic klutz, the father a remote bumbler. It's up to Marshall and his 10-year-old friend Simon, played by Justin Shenakarow, to save these people from their blind spots.

"Eerie, Indiana" is a true post-"Simpsons" show, funny and pointed at the same time, comic commentary on contemporary life for all ages. But remember, keep your eyes open at all times. Elvis might be alive and well in Eerie.

"Nurses": This half hour from the Susan Harris factory joins her other shows, "The Golden Girls" and "Empty Nest," on NBC's Saturday night lineup this weekend at 9:30 on Channel 2. Though it is a comedy set in the medical arena, this is no "M*A*S*H." It's more like "Barney Miller."

Actually, it's more like a vaudeville act as the various comic characters -- the tough, cynical white nurse, the tough, cynical black nurse, the slightly wacky Hispanic nurse, the crazed male nurse, the naive new nurse -- each get a chance to do their bits. Plot and storyline are threadlike.

Stand-up comedians Stephanie Hodge and Jeff Altman get their share of laughs, but the best character is Mary Jo Keenan's Julie, the naive newcomer who is struggling with her many phobias. Next week's episode features the first of many crossovers as Park Overall brings her nurse role from "Empty Nest" onto this ward.

As with most of Harris' creations, "Nurses" leans heavily on sexual and scatological humor in its first episode, but since Harris is known for creating and abandoning shows, it will be up to a new staff to try to put some starch in these white uniforms.

"P.S. I Luv U": Arguably the worst newcomer, "P.S. I Love U" is a throwback to lighthearted froth like "Charlie's Angels" and "Hart to Hart." CBS, which premieres this show with a two-hour movie on Channel 11 (WBAL) Sunday night at 9 o'clock, is hoping you'll want such mindlessness Fridays at 10 p.m.

The dresses are high-hemmed and low-cut as Connie Selleca teams with Greg Evigan as a mismatched pair of crime solvers in Palm Springs. She's there in the witness protection program while he's a reluctant policeman assigned to assist her. They fall for each other before the pilot is out.

"Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice" and such were supposed to have killed shows like these. They must need a stake through the heart.

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