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THE FALL TV SEASON : TV ADJUSTS TO NEW WRINKLES

TV is getting bolder and older. Its gray-haired crowd is growing grayer.

There’s probably no group from androids to pygmies--that hasn’t been repeatedly maligned and stereotyped by TV. The elderly are no exception.

Although the 65-plus group has tripled since 1900 and may constitute a third of the population by the end of this century, TV has traditionally either ignored or ridiculed aging.

For the most part on prime time, age 60 has been equated with living death. Older persons were either invisible or insipid. They have been depicted as pathetic, dottering, helpless and senile, and frequently have been the butt of cheap jokes.

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TV news has sometimes provided a balance. Cable News Network recently completed a wide-ranging series on the elderly. ABC News is preparing a three-hour documentary called “Growing Old in America.” Locally, KABC-TV Channel 7 has topped other stations in covering older persons and even has an on-air “senior citizen” specialist, gray-haired Doris Winkler.

Contemptible TV stereotypes aren’t destroyed in a day, though, and Clara Peller made a bundle looking for the beef.

Yet look around.

Brian Keith is a tough crime buster on “Hardcastle & McCormick.” George Gaynes is the admirable Henry Warnimont on “Punky Brewster.” Squeaky Dr. Ruth Westheimer spews out sex advice on Lifetime cable. No criminal is a match for Angela Lansbury on “Murder, She Wrote.” Walter Cronkite still occasionally leaves his cloud to alight on CBS News. John Houseman remains the rock of Showtime’s continuation of “The Paper Chase.” Jane Wyman is the omnipotent matriarch on “Falcon Crest.” John Forsythe still gets the girl on “Dynasty.”

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Joan Collins is 52, but doesn’t count, because she looks only 32. In fact, the general stupefication over her sexpotdom on “Dynasty” at “her age” is a reflection of society’s continued sexism. No one is shocked that J.R. is such a stud on “Dallas,” even though Larry Hagman is older than Collins.

Meanwhile, here’s something that does count in the battle against ageism--NBC’s “The Golden Girls.” (9 p.m. Saturday on Channels 4, 36 and 39). It’s followed at 9:30 by another new NBC comedy, the lesser “227.”

Not only does “The Golden Girls” offer meaningful portrayals of women in their post-middle-age years, but, as a bonus, it’s one of those TV rarities, a comedy that’s funny. Very funny.

At least the first episode is. Sharing a house in geriatric Miami (where “all the single men under 80 are cocaine smugglers”) are three 55-60-year-old women: Dorothy the divorcee (Bea Arthur), Rose the widow (Betty White) and Blanche the widow (Rue McClanahan), who owns the house. They’re joined by Dorothy’s mother, Sophia (Estelle Getty), whose brain has been damaged by a stroke. That may not be funny to you if you’ve known anyone whose brain has been damaged by a stroke, but Sophia’s free-spirited, no-bull bluntness is a refreshing howl.

On the premiere, Dorothy and Rose fear they will be out on the street if Blanche goes through with her plans to marry. “You must be Blanche’s sister,” Blanche’s slick-talking fiance tells the shriveled, unsmiling Sophia. “You must be blind,” she snaps.

“The Golden Girls” is no “Cocoon,” Ron Howard’s wonderfully perceptive and poignant fantasy film whose central characters reside in a Florida retirement home. Created, produced and written by Susan Harris (“Soap”), though, “The Golden Girls” projects truths of its own, making fun of age without insulting or lying about it.

The characters on the premiere are overdrawn for comedic purposes but are also honest in their fashion. They talk about their age, and sometimes joke about it and lament it. The bullying Dorothy is jolted when she looks into the mirror and sees “this old woman.” The ethereal Blanche is happy to find a date who “doesn’t make noises when he chews.” The flighty Rose looks down at her body and sees “my mother’s legs.”

In fact, it is Rose who is at once the frothiest and truest of the characters as she articulates the loneliness felt by many older women who find themselves suddenly spouseless. “There are too many years left,” she says, “And I do not know what to do.”

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Here’s another bonus: “Golden Girls” not only has funny lines, but also a funny cast to make the lines work. Getty, White and McClanahan (although she looks too young for someone in her “golden” years) are rockets.

And when Arthur is around, the laughs really hit the fan. There has never been anyone in TV comedy who made a better tyrant (she is replaying Maude here), anyone with better timing, anyone funnier. Many of the gags are not even gags until she reacts to them.

When Sophia is sleeping, Dorothy holds a mirror to the old woman’s mouth to see if she’s still breathing. “You never can tell,” Dorothy says.

Golden, indeed.

“227,” starring Marla Gibbs as Mary Jenkins, the nosiest, wisest-cracking resident in her apartment building, is a reviewer’s enigma.

The episode that NBC initially sent over was uneven, but funny enough to make you want to tune in again, showing off Gibbs and Jackee Harry (as the building’s well-endowed flirt) at their comedic best.

Then NBC sent over Saturday’s premiere, an episode about Mary trying to wriggle out of paying for a car she damaged. Boring!

Which is the real “227?” You’re on your own.

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