Times Staff Writer

The painful shedding of youth is dealt with in two very different dramas on TV tonight.

In some respects, ABC's "Prince of Bel Air" (9 p.m., Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) is the male equivalent of one of those stories about hookers that the networks are always dishing up--titillating us with depictions of their life style while moralizing about how awful it is.

The character here is a stereotypical Southern California beach bum who, at 32, lives life, as one character observes, "like a beer commercial"--playing volleyball, drinking with his buddies, charming an endless stream of new ladies into bed and, just to supply the spending money, running a small pool-cleaning business.

But even as we enviously watch Robin Prince (Mark Harmon) pursue this carefree existence, events are conspiring to force him to question the long-term value and satisfaction of his existence. He is cajoled into taking on a teen-aged apprentice (Patrick Labyorteaux) and then falls in love with the lad's 30-year-old cousin (Kirstie Alley), an artist who takes life a lot more seriously than he does.

"Maybe the pressure to always have a good time is getting to me," Robin broods at one point. (Of course! Now aren't you glad you have so many responsibilities?)

The surprise is that writers Dori Pierson and Marc Rubel and director Charles Braverman have transformed this commercially calculated premise into a generally satisfying story about learning to give up momentary pleasures of youth for (hopefully) more rewarding commitments of adulthood.

Harmon isn't so good that he keeps us from questioning why Robin and his friends would allow an inexperienced teen-ager into their midst, or what it is he finds so dazzlingly different about Kirstie's character. But he is convincing at portraying Robin's easy affability and casual confidence and suggests enough depth to make you believe the guy might really wonder, like Alfie, what it's all about.

At the other end of the developmental spectrum is the title character in "The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket," adapted by Peter Parnell from his 1982 stage play for the fifth season premiere of PBS' "American Playhouse" (8 p.m., Channel 50; 9 p.m., Channels 28 and 15). Unlike Robin, he can't wait to grow up and begin fulfilling his destiny "to do great things."

Engagingly played by Tom Hulce, who originated the role Off Broadway before departing to play Mozart in the film version of "Amadeus," Daniel at first view is an unusual 12-year-old with an obsession and, it turns out, a magical talent for flying. He literally takes off for fame and fortune.

"The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket" is about the price he pays in pursuit of his dream--first in the way he's treated as a child, then, when he returns home 20 years later, in what he's missed in the way of friendship and love. Even fulfilled, Parnell is saying, the dream alone is not sustaining.

Neither is this production. Well acted and directed with charm by Emile Ardolino, Parnell's fanciful conceit nevertheless is undone by the simplicity of its theme. Daniel Rocket soars; "Daniel Rocket" doesn't.

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