NEW SITCOMS, DRAMAS ON THE LIGHT SIDE : ABC THROWS COMEDY INTO THE BREACH

Times Staff Writer

Look for ABC to use laughter as the medicine to heal some of its ailing time periods beginning later this month.

Starting March 15, the network will double its Friday-night comedy lineup with the addition of "Off the Rack," starring Eileen Brennan and Ed Asner, and "Mr. Belvedere," with ex-"Fantasy Island" sidekick Christopher Hewett.

The following week, "The ABC Thursday Night Movie" will be replaced from 8 to 10 p.m. by two new comedy-dramas. They are "Wildside," an ensemble show that is sort of an "A-Team" set in the Old West, and "Eye to Eye," inspired by the movie "The Late Show," with Charles Durning in the Art Carney role as an aging private eye teamed up with a "directionless young woman"--Stephanie Faracy in the Lily Tomlin role.

And tonight, Cybill Shepherd again tries her hand at a TV series when "Moonlighting"--yet another detective show but played strictly for laughs--replaces "Call to Glory" at 10.

(An ABC spokesman said Monday that all the new shows are "in good condition" in terms of completed scripts, should the strike by the Writers Guild of America continue for an extended period of time. The spokesman refused to elaborate on the exact number of scripts completed, but each show was expected to have rushed completion of nearly the full order--about six scripts--before the deadline of midnight last Thursday, when the WGA contract expired.)

ABC Entertainment President Lewis Erlicht said that the new Friday-night sitcoms are an attempt to capitalize on the success of "Benson" and "Webster." Those shows currently give ABC a winning combination Fridays from 8 to 9, before CBS' "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest" move in with a lock on the rest of the evening.

ABC has tried movies and "countless action/adventure dramas" on Fridays, most recently the soon-to-expire "Street Hawk" at 9, Erlicht said. Now he has decided to extend the comedy formula that has proven itself earlier in the evening. Erlicht said ABC will "bite the bullet" and split up the successful block of "Webster" and "Benson" so they can each lead off an hour of programming, at 8 and 9 p.m. respectively.

"Mr. Belvedere" will fill the 8:30 slot. The show plays to a young audience with its tale of a snooty British housekeeper (Hewett) caring for a reluctant Bob Uecker (the former major league baseball player best known for his Lite Beer commercials) and family. The slightly more adult-themed "Off the Rack," with Asner and Brennan as clashing partners in an L.A. garment business, will follow Benson at 9:30.

As for "Matt Houston," which this season took a third-place seat behind "Falcon Crest" and NBC's stylistic "Miami Vice" Fridays at 10 p.m., Erlicht said he is "not prepared to give up on the show. We don't feel that anything we could put in there at this time would do any better."

Erlicht said that ABC for now can only hope for second place at best on Friday night. But he believes that, if the 8-to-10 comedy block takes hold, "it's not impossible in the long run" to dethrone "Dallas" and maybe even carry the night.

Tonight's debut of "Moonlighting" in its regular time period is designed to give ABC compatibility in the 9-11 p.m. time block, Erlicht said. Both "Moonlighting" and "MacGruder and Loud" are "relationship shows," he said, dealing primarily with interaction between a man and a woman.

The two-hour premiere of "Moonlighting," billed as a "romantic comedy," aired Sunday at 9 p.m. On Tuesdays, far from counterprogramming, "Moonlighting" strongly resembles the competition on NBC: "Remington Steele."

"Moonlighting," like "Remington Steele," deals with an attractive young woman who owns a detective agency and is forced to work side by side with the man who ostensibly runs the show. Shepherd, whose last series was NBC's short-lived "Yellow Rose," stars as a wealthy model who owns an unprofitable detective agency as a tax write-off. When her business managers swindle her, she is forced to take a more active role in the private eye firm, run by the wisecracking Bruce Willis.

"Moonlighting's" premiere was directed by Robert Butler, co-creator of "Remington Steele," and was written by Glen Caron, a former producer of "Remington Steele" who wrote several of that show's first-year scripts. Caron now serves as executive producer of "Moonlighting."

"There's certainly a similarity, in that there's a guy and a girl," Caron said the other day. "But when we did 'Remington,' everybody said, 'Uh, geesh, you're doing "Hart to Hart" ' . . . which of course was doing 'Mr. and Mrs. North.'

"Our show owes a much bigger debt to the '40s screwball comedies. It's the fifty thousandth detective show--but it knows it's the fifty thousandth detective show."

Caron says his original intent was to do "a romance," but ABC's Erlicht requested that he package it in a format familiar to viewers--hence the detective angle.

Erlicht now says that "if people get hung up at all in the detective side, then we have lost our battle. We are selling the show as a romantic comedy."

Ironically, "Moonlighting" hits the airwaves just as "Remington Steele" executive producer Michael Gleason is planning to reinject some of the romantic comedy flair in evidence during its debut season. Gleason said that the show's second and its current third season moved away from that because NBC "would like to see a broader detective series."

The networks' love affair with private eyes--especially humorous man-woman teams--will be further in evidence March 21 when "Eye to Eye" joins ABC's Thursday lineup. Facing NBC's killer comedy lineup--"The Cosby Show" at 8 p.m., followed by "Family Ties" and "Cheers"--and CBS' still-respectable "Magnum, P.I.-"Simon & Simon" pairing, Erlicht sees the new Thursday schedule as a "solid and compelling alternative."

With "Wildside" as a lead-in, the new 8-10 p.m. lineup will tread middle ground, with more action than NBC's sitcoms and more humor than CBS' action shows.

"Wildside" stars William Smith, J. Eddie Peck, Howard E. Rollins Jr. ("Ragtime," "A Soldier's Story"), John DiAquino and Terry Funk as "a feared fighting machine" in the Old West. Look for lots of ammo to be spent but very little to hit its mark--except, ABC hopes, in the ratings.

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