For Those Watching at Home TV SEASON PREVIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The four major broadcast networks are raising the curtain on the new fall season. Here is TV critic David Zurawik's guide to tell you where and when to find your old favorites and new prospects on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Nightly schedules include the times shows will appear and the date of their season premieres.

ratings:

**** -- Excellent

*** -- Very good

** -- Good

* -- Poor

SUNDAY

* "Earth 2" (NBC, 7 p.m.): It's 200 years into the future, and we're all forced to live in space stations in this would-be "Star Trek" from the Steven Spielberg factory. Despite lots of hype, the producers have yet to deliver a pilot that NBC is willing to show critics. It's awfully late not to have a pilot (which explains why there's no premiere date set for the show). Earth to "Earth 2": Does the name Paula Poundstone ring any bells from last year?

* "Fortune Hunter" (Fox, 7 p.m.): A suave Englishman (Mark Frankel) is paired with a computer geek played by John Robert Hoffman in this spy adventure series from Fox. They bond -- as in James Bond. They also steal from "Remington Steele" and "Mission Impossible." Lots of women in skimpy outfits falling for Frankel, which probably has absolutely nothing to do with this series following NFL football and Fox trying to hold those male viewers. **

* "On Our Own" (ABC, 7:30 p.m.): It's "Mrs. Doubtfire" meets the Jackson Family in this sitcom about a family of five brothers and two sisters whose parents were killed in a car crash. To keep the family together, the oldest brother (played by comedian Ralph Harris) cross-dresses in hopes of passing himself off to social workers as a proper guardian named Aunt Jelcinda, aka Mama J. Six members of the real-life Smollett family play Harris' brothers and sisters. It's the kids' ultimate wish fulfillment when it comes to Mom and Dad. **

* "Hardball" (Fox, 8:30 p.m.): For guys who can't get enough jock action on Sundays comes this small-screen sitcom version of "Major League." The pilot was really dumb. But the producers have since promised to ax a gratuitous sex scene, add an African-American cast member and bring a woman in as owner of this sorry baseball team. In the pilot, women were the victims of only every other joke. It's still going to be a dumb show, but it's a very smart move by Fox to create a guys' show that can be plugged all afternoon by John Madden and Pat Summerall. Great lineup spot, too, between "The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children." *** (two of them for the network programmers)

* "Wild Oats" (Fox, 9:30 p.m.): Could Fox be Fox without at least one new twentysomething show? This is it. Remember "About Last Night," with Rob Lowe? This is the bite-size, TV knockoff version. A singles bar, two young men, two young women, lots of talk about sex, sex, sex. Occasionally, they do mention the word relationship -- the women, that is. Tim Conlon is the one to watch. He looks, sounds and acts like a young Bob Cummings. Furthermore, he plays an oversexed fashion photographer just as Bob did back in the '50s. No Schultzy, though, in this one. Sorry. ** 1/2

Big changes/big questions: CBS' prime-time lineup no longer has the NFL as a lead-in. How will "60 Minutes" and "Murder, She Wrote" fare without it? How will Fox do with the football lead-in? How will "The Simpsons" do on Sundays instead of Thursdays? Is Fox trying to slice the youth audience one way too many with "The Simpsons" in a head-to-head with "seaQuest DSV" and "Lois & Clark"?

MONDAY

* "Blue Skies" (ABC, 8:30 p.m.): Two young guys, best friends, have a back-to-nature mail-order catalog company, like L.L. Bean. When they find themselves in financial trouble, they take on a third partner named Ellie, who's a Harvard MBA. Ellie's brilliant, both guys are attracted to her, and you wonder what's going to crash first -- the business or the friendship. Corey Parker, the house-painter/lover from "thirtysomething," is one of the partners. His character, Joel Goodman, gets most of the laughs in the pilot. Tough time period, but it's one of the more promising sitcoms of the freshman class. ** 1/2

* "The Marshal" (ABC, 9 p.m.): This drama joins the lineup in January after Monday Night Football ends. It's about a modern-day U.S. marshal, played by Jeff Fahey. He hunts fugitives by day. At night, he's just a baby-boomer dad trying to make a living from Uncle Sam in the '90s. * 1/2

* "Party of Five" (Fox, 9 p.m.): Like ABC's "On Our Own," this is another show with the premise that Mom and Dad have been killed in a car accident. A trend? Probably just two networks getting the same idea at the same time. This one's a drama with a decidedly weepy tone about teens and pre-teens living on their own under the guidance of a twentysomething big brother. * 1/2

Big changes/big questions: How will "Melrose Place" and "Coach" do in a new time period, Monday nights at 8? How will CBS do with an unproven show, "The Nanny," leading off the evening? Has "Murphy Brown" reached the end of its run?

Blacked out in Baltimore: "Love and War" will be pre-empted at 9:30 p.m. by WBAL (Channel 11) for reruns of "Murphy Brown."

TUESDAY

* "The Martin Short Show" (NBC, 8:30 p.m.): It's the show within a show, with Martin Short the comedian playing Marty Short, comedian and host of a variety show. The pilot was a mess, but it had moments of brilliance. NBC has since scrapped most of the cast and added Andrea Martin and Jan Hooks. No new pilot available for preview. But give it two and a half stars mainly on promise and out of respect for Short's wacky Ed Grimley character. ** 1/2

* "Me and the Boys" (ABC, 8:30 p.m.): Yet another family sitcom with three kids. In this one, Mom is dead and Dad (Steve Harvey) has to raise the boys on his own. Well, almost on his own; his mother-in-law (Madge Sinclair) is on hand to help out. Yeah, the premise is pretty bad. But Harvey manages to connect with the kid actors, and, as stereotypes go, this show does a lot better than most. Its time period between "Full House" and "Roseanne" should make for solid ratings. ***

Big changes/big questions: In the battle of the year, "Frasier" moves from Thursdays to slug it out with "Home Improvement," which was moved from Wednesdays. "Grace Under Fire" also moves from Wednesday, putting Brett Butler up against John Larroquette. "Roseanne," which was the reason for all the moves in the first place, shifts to Wednesdays along with "Ellen," which used to be known as "These Friends of Mine." Got that? "Wings" also flies in from Thursdays to lead off the night for NBC. David Caruso will leave "NYPD Blue" after the fourth show to be replaced by Jimmy Smits. How much will it hurt ""NYPD Blue"? Overall, the big question is whether ABC can hold off the attack by NBC and continue to win the night.

WEDNESDAY

* "The Boys Are Back" (CBS, 8 p.m.): Hal Linden and Suzanne Pleshette are a couple of empty-nesters who suddenly find their grown sons moving back home. It would have been the best new sitcom of the year in, say, 1978. **

* "Daddy's Girls" (CBS, 8:30 p.m.): Dudley Moore was once very funny. These days, he mainly acts bewildered -- a short, English version of Chevy Chase. I laughed out loud during "Daddy's Girls" -- a sitcom starring Moore as a man trying to rebuild his life and raise three daughters -- but not because of anything Moore did. It was the wonderful work of Harvey Fierstein that made me laugh. He plays a gay designer in the clothes company owned by Moore, and he should be the new breakout character of the year. ** 1/2 (two of them for Fierstein)

* "All American Girl" (ABC, 8:30 p.m.): Comedian Margaret Cho plays a young, hip Korean-American living with her more traditional parents in this latest lady-comic-as-star sitcom from ABC. Cho might be as funny onstage as her predecessors -- Roseanne, Brett Butler and Ellen DeGeneres -- but the pilot for her sitcom definitely isn't. Big laughs here are her mother screaming in heavily accented English, "No tongue kissing." Tune in and see how many Asian-American stereotypes you can count in the pilot. **

* "Touched by an Angel" (CBS, 9 p.m.): This show could come to be known as the touchstone for how out-of-it CBS is in terms of generational and ethnic diversity. They aren't even close to having a pilot, after scrapping the first one and firing just about everyone connected with it. Last month, the new producers told critics the only thing they knew for sure was that it was going to be about angels. Della Reese is supposed to co-star with Roma Downey, which makes this the only new show from CBS with an African-American in a leading role. I predict the series will be yanked from the schedule be replaced at the last minute by "Christy," a backup series.

Big changes/big questions: "Roseanne" and "Ellen" arrive to take up safe time periods. If they can't win here, they can't win anywhere. Shannen Doherty's gone from "Beverly Hills, 90210," replaced by Tiffani-Amber Thiessen. Will it matter? Can Cosby's return in "The Cosby Mysteries" make NBC a winner at 8 p.m.? What will ABC do if "Thunder Alley" and "All American Girl" can't compete with "Beverly Hills, 90210" and Cosby? Sam Waterston has replaced Michael Moriarty on "Law & Order." Will Waterston make it better or worse? Will Waterston, too, become obsessed with Janet Reno? Will "Models, Inc." ever get better?

Blacked out in Baltimore: WBAL (Channel 11) will pre-empt "Daddy's Girls" for reruns of "Who's the Boss?"

THURSDAY

* "My So-Called Life" (ABC, 8 p.m.): Not only the best new series of the year, it's also the best girls' coming-of-age series ever done on television. Clair Danes stars as Angela Chase, the 15-year-old in this family drama from the makers of "thirtysomething." She's terrific. But Tom Irwin and Baltimore's Bess Armstrong are pretty terrific, too, as her fortysomething parents. Yes, it's whiny and angst-ridden at times, just like "thirtysomething," but it's also winning and wise. ****

* "Due South" (CBS, 8 p.m.): This is the show about a Mountie from Moose Jaw who teams up with a slick Chicago detective to fight crime in the Windy City. Believe me, you don't even want to know why or how the Mountie comes to Chicago. The best thing about the pilot is the Mountie's pet wolf, which is deaf. It's a Canadian co-production. If it wasn't cheaper to co-produce with Canada, this series would never have been made. * 1/2 (mainly for the deaf wolf)

* "Friends" (NBC, 8:30 p.m.): Might be the best new sitcom of the season. No plot to speak of, just a group of unmarried young adult friends sitting around a coffee bar and an apartment riffing on each other, life, jobs and relationships. A younger version of "Seinfeld" with a larger cast. Courtney Cox, who was briefly "married" to Jerry last year on "Seinfeld," is the first among equals. ***

* "McKenna" (ABC, 9 p.m.): A river runs through it with the great Chad Everett as the patriarch of a family-run wilderness expedition business in Oregon. Actually, neither Everett nor the series is as bad as I had anticipated. But it's still only two stars, and that's mainly for the on-location scenery. **

* "Madman of the People" (NBC, 9:30): Maybe all you need to know about this series is that it follows "Seinfeld." That's all the advertising agency experts needed to know before pronouncing it a hit. Dabney Coleman stars in this sitcom about an anti-establishment magazine columnist who winds up working for his fast-track daughter when she becomes the magazine's publisher. Coleman's playing a softened version of Slap Maxwell and Buffalo Bill here, and he's not that funny. But having a good time period is better than being funny. ** 1/2

* "New York Undercover" (Fox, 9 p.m.): "Miami Vice" goes to New York to attract Generation Xers, with two cops, flashy visuals and lots of hot music. Malik Yoba, Michael DeLorenzo and Patti D'Arbanville-Quinn star. Produced by Dick ("Law & Order") Wolf and filmed on location in New York City, it has a good look to it. ***

* "E.R." (NBC, 10 p.m.): This is the "quality drama" lineup spot on NBC that many thought would go to "Homicide." Instead, it went to this medical drama from Michael ("Jurassic Park") Crichton. It's one of two new doctor dramas set in a Chicago hospital that are scheduled against each other. Of the two, it's the better one. ***

* "Chicago Hope" (CBS, 10 p.m.): This is the other doctor drama. It has the big star, Mandy Patinkin. It has a big producer, David E. Kelley, of "L.A. Law." But it celebrates the key members of this group of surgeons and specialists as so brilliant and so cool that it makes me want to gag. It might have worked in the 1980s. But I think many of us are more skeptical these days about such glorified depictions of doctors, lawyers and business people. More evidence of the diversity problem at CBS: Not one doctor in this Chicago hospital was African-American, though the producers promised last month to fix that after it was pointed out to them. **

Big changes/big questions: Can "My So-Called Life" find a big enough audience to survive opposite "Mad About You," "Friends," "Martin" and "Living Single"? Can NBC continue to control the night after the departure of "Wings" and "Frasier" to other nights? Will "Prime Time Live" knock out both of the doctor dramas, especially this month if the O.J. Simpson case is making headlines?

FRIDAY

* "Under Suspicion" (CBS, 9 p.m.): This is CBS' attempt to make a commercial version of "Prime Suspect." Karen Silas plays Rose "Phil" Phillips, a detective named "women's coordinator" in a very male police department. The look of the series is low-rent film noir, and it's clear the producer and CBS understood almost nothing about what makes "Prime Suspect" so great. * 1/2

* "M.A.N.T.I.S." (Fox, 8 p.m.): Carl Lumbly as a paraplegic biophysicist who builds himself an external skeleton that allows him not only to walk again but also to slam-dunk bad guys with a flick of his wrist. It's action adventure and comic-book dialogue, but it's also about empowerment. There's been some criticism of this show because the number of African-American cast members in last year's made-for-TV version was reduced when it became a series. The star is African-American, and it's still aimed primarily at African-American teens and pre-teens. * 1/2

Big changes/big questions: Can "Homicide" find an audience against the Emmy-rich "Picket Fences" and ratings-rich "20/20"? If it doesn't, will NBC stay with it and give it another time period? Can anything dent the ratings roll of ABC's TGIF lineup that starts with "Family Matters"?

Blacked out in Baltimore: WBAL (Channel 11) pre-empts "Diagnosis Murder," the CBS series with the oldest demographics on all of network television, for "Baywatch," the syndicated show with the hottest bods on all of television. So much for network-affiliate relations.

SATURDAY

* "Something Wilder" (NBC, 8 p.m.): This is the series that will bring Gene Wilder to weekly television. How long he stays there will depend on whether Wilder and his producers can get their act together. Just about everything from the title to the cast has been changed in this series about a late-in-life father who suddenly finds himself trying to raise twins. Still no pilot.

* "Sweet Justice" (NBC, 9 p.m.): This is the series that brings Melissa Gilbert and Cicely Tyson back to weekly television. They play lawyers in a Southern law firm that cares -- and they do it in a way that should make viewers care, too. Gilbert and Tyson balance each other nicely. It could be a hit with the Saturday-night audience looking for something to watch after "Dr. Quinn." ***

* "The Five Mrs. Buchanans" (CBS, 9 p.m.): Sitcom about four very different women who become allies in a continuing battle with their mother-in-law. Think of it as an in-law version of "Designing Women." The mother-in-law is played by Eileen Heckart. Judith Ivey plays the feistiest of her daughters-in-law. ** 1/2

Big changes/big questions: ABC has made big promises about programming movies on Saturday night that the whole family can watch together. Will the network live up to that promise? If they do, will they finally make in-roads into the huge audience for "Dr. Quinn" on CBS? Who's programming Fox, with its schedule of back-to-back episodes of "Cops" followed by "America's Most Wanted" -- the Justice Department?

Blacked out in Baltimore: WBAL (Channel 11) will pre-empt "The Five Mrs. Buchanans" and "Hearts Afire" for either back-to-back reruns of "Golden Girls" or "Hawkeye," a syndicated series set in the 18th century and starring Lee Horsely as a frontiersman. The idea is that the audience for "Dr. Quinn" will want to go from one frontier to another rather than from the world of "Dr. Quinn" to two bad sitcoms. It sounds like a plan to me.

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