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Two fine new shows examine family life through young eyes


LOOKING AT THE world from the viewpoint of that exquisite anguish known as adolescence gives you a magnifying glass on your subject.

Just as he turns the smallest pimple into the world's largest blemish, so this man-child examines every detail of his social and physical milieu, looking for clues that will lead to a solution to the mystery of life that looms ahead.

Mark Twain recognized this when he chose his narrators for "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn." So did J.D. Salinger when he wrote "Catcher in the Rye."

Network television has known this at least since "Leave it to Beaver" and "Dobie Gillis." The excellent "Wonder Years" rediscovered the potential of the genre and "Doogie Howser M.D." and "Beverly Hills 90210" have followed.

This weekend, two more are added to the mix -- CBS' "Brooklyn Bridge" and NBC's "The Torklesons," both fine half hours near the head of the 1991 class of newcomers.

"Brooklyn Bridge," which premieres with an hour tonight at 8 o'clock on Channel 11 (WBAL) before settling into its 8:30 time slot next Friday, is the creation of Gary David Goldberg, best known for "Family Ties."

The problem with most of Goldberg's shows is that the characters seem like walking ideas, not real people. It's only when the talent of someone like Michael J. Fox fleshes them out that they start to work.

That's not a problem with "Brooklyn Bridge" because Goldberg isn't writing about characters he's invented, he's writing about people that he knows. The year is 1956 and the place is Brooklyn, the culture is Jewish, and the subject is growing up.

"Brooklyn Bridge" is autobiography in half-hour chunks. According to Goldberg, he is not the show's central character, 14-year-old Alan Silver, he is the 9-year-old brother Nathaniel.

The two boys' lives orbit around the substantial nucleus of their grandmother Sophie, who lives in the apartment downstairs and knows every detail of the lives of everyone who lives in the building. Sophie is there all the time, to fix them breakfast, defrost their dinner, listen in on their telephone conversations, whatever needs to be done.

For fun, watch the show with people who don't know about its cast and see if they can guess who's playing Sophie. It's Marion Ross, about as far from "Happy Days" as a gray wig and a Yiddish accent can carry her. She's great, as is Louis Zorich as her husband, Jules. Danny Gerard as Alan misses some of the small moments but comes through in the big scenes, while Matthew Siegel is fine as the younger Nathaniel.

"Brooklyn Bridge" proves that the truth is in the details. In its specificity of time and place, of religion and class, of baseball team and classroom desks, the show finds its universality. It rings true because it is true, not just more of the generic pabulum that is too often spooned out in prime time as ersatz truth, sometimes by Goldberg's shows.

Tonight's plot is about meeting girls and baseball players. It is about big truths and small lies. Its laughs are plentiful, heartfelt, often bittersweet. Though its view seems overly halcyon, it introduces a few characters -- a Catholic girlfriend, a black teacher -- who give it the potential to deal with the era's downside.

This is one "Brooklyn Bridge" you should buy.

"The Torklesons" is about another time, another place, but it also works because it is rooted in reality. Lynn Montgomery wrote the script that was the original concept for this show, taking it from her grandmother's recollections of life in the Depression.

This new NBC show, which premieres tomorrow night at 8:30 on Channel 2 (WMAR), is set in Oklahoma, not during the Depression of the 1930s, but in a less specific, but quite familiar, era known as Hard Times.

Millicent Torkleson is a single mother trying to raise her five kids in a ramshackle old Victorian house. She is nothing if not resourceful, coming up with a story for the creditors as fast as she can whip up a new wardrobe out of an old set of curtains.

She's the type of woman who goes through life the way a melodramatic actor goes through the scenery. Which is not good news for her eldest, Dorothy Jane. After all, when you're 14, you want your parents to disappear. And "The Torklesons" tells its story from Dorothy Jane's viewpoint.

Connie Ray plays Millicent with no holds barred, as if it's a character she's known her whole life, while developing a nice counterpoint harmony with Olivia Burnette, who plays Dorothy Jane. Veteran William Schallert shows up as a boarder, undoubtedly aboard to dispense some wisdom of the ages.

There are a lot of good, from the heartland, laughs in Saturday's premiere. You like these people, though if they did live next door, about a half hour a week with them would be just right.

One cautionary note, however. In the inevitable behind-the-scene battles to get this series on the air, Montgomery has been pushed down to about fifth on the production pecking order and Michael Jacobs, the brain behind classics like "Charles in Charge," "My Two Dads" and the lame scripts of "Dinosaurs," is now major-domo. So even though it's hard times on "The Torklesons," things could get worse.

* The weekend's other new show is "Step by Step," another half hour from the Miller-Boyett production factory that cranks out the feel-good drivel that dominates the Friday night ratings for ABC.

This one, premiering tonight at 8:30 on Channel 13 (WJZ), brings Suzanne Somers back to prime time and Patrick Duffy back to Friday nights. She's a totally organized widowed beautician. He's a hang-loose kind of divorced contractor. Each has three kids.

For the most part "Step by Step" just pushes all the Miller-Boyett buttons -- a cute scene, a touching scene, a hug scene, a semi-funny scene, another hug scene -- nothing offensive, but all the substance of a watery bowl of cream of wheat.

This is the type of hybrid that may thrive in the hothouse of ABC's Friday night lineup but would wilt if anyone took it outdoors.

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