Networks Go for the Bold... : Television: Fiercer competition and declining audiences help shape a new attitude about taking risks.

TV has finally gotten good. Relatively good.

You have your crime, you have your comedy, you have your warmth. You have your style, you have your kids, you have your music. You have your flash, you have your brash, you have your trash. You have your new, you have your old.

Most of all, though, you have your bold.

All right, not spit-in-your-eye bold. Not shockingly bold. Not you-won't-believe-they-did-this bold. Not "All in the Family" bold or no-subject-is-taboo bold. But pretty darned bold, considering that prime time is usually such a cowering pantywaist.

No wonder, then, that the 1990-91 season, which began arriving piecemeal in August like water slowly dripping from a leaky faucet and continues unfolding tonight with three series premieres (see reviews, Page F9), is arguably the most promising in years.

Has a creative corner been turned? Will this be known as The Bold Age of Television? Unlikely. TV moves in cycles, don't forget. And besides, every inspired newcomer in the fall season is matched by a couple of clunkers.

Just the same, you can't help feeling a little bit optimistic.

The bare statistics--18 comedies, 13 dramas, one documentary series and two "reality" series--don't tell the story of the fall season. The story is this:

Faced with continuing severe audience declines and the growing threat from aggressive Fox, those former fat cats ABC, CBS and NBC seem to have decided, at last, to fight daring with daring.

First, the networks aped Fox's 1989 strategy of jump-starting the fall season. NBC, for example, began trickling out its new series Aug. 20, almost a month before the officially designated Sept. 17 start of the fall season. By the end of next weekend, 18 of 34 new series on the four networks will have premiered.

More important, as Fox also has done, the Big Three are taking more risks.

Riskiness is central to ABC's "Cop Rock" and CBS' "Evening Shade," the new season's best drama series and comedy series, respectively. Ironically, it's also evident--if you believe that slobbery and coarse language are necessarily courageous--on CBS' "Uncle Buck," the worst of the new season's comedy series, which premieres tonight.

In banality, "Uncle Buck" barely edges "Babes," the comedically anorexic new Fox series (arriving Thursday) about three sisters whose rotundness is used as a rationale for launching one fat gag after another. Come to think of it, "True Colors," the Fox comedy about interracial marriage, is about in that class too. And so is the Fox comedy "Get a Life!," despite the presence of super talent Chris Elliot. Yes, more than a few clunkers.

The worst of the new drama series, meanwhile, is the laughably moronic "E.A.R.T.H. Force," which equally trivializes environmentalists and the planet they seek to preserve. This is prime time's very own oil slick.

The ecology is better on ABC, the most adventurous of the big three networks in recent times, evidenced by "The Wonder Years," "thirtysomething" and "Twin Peaks." And when it arrives on that network Sept. 26, Steven Bochco's "Cop Rock" will give prime time its first musical police series, each episode weaving five songs or production numbers into story lines that at once are sober and humorous, a la Bochco's former series, "Hill Street Blues." More than just a noble experiment, here is television that gives you a rush.

Just as exciting in its own way is "Evening Shade," a very funny comedy set in a small Arkansas town where a high school football coach, played by Burt Reynolds, interacts with a catalogue of supremely eccentric characters played by Marilu Henner, Charles Durning, Ossie Davis, Hal Holbrook and Elizabeth Ashley. In being witty and portraying sexuality and relationships with honesty, "Evening Shade" treads a TV tightrope that other comedies have feared to walk. And such a cast.

But that's not all.

* NBC's "Lifestories" goes where no other medical series has dared by foregoing the cheap heart tug in favor of "Our Town" with a stethoscope: intimate stories that unsparingly and movingly depict illness while dispensing information intended to keep you alive and well.

* NBC's "Ferris Bueller" and Fox's "Parker Lewis Can't Lose!" are comedies that are almost identically quirky, supplanting TV's conventional high schoolers with witty wisecrackers who teeter on the comic edge and view life from every conceivable angle.

* Fox's "American Chronicles" is a glorious-looking, smashingly mounted documentary series of visual essays whose moody mix of sights and sounds is unparalleled in prime time. Informative? Not in the traditional sense, but a real looker.

* Fox's "DEA" is a crime series shot almost as a documentary, a risky technique that sometimes eclipses instead of enhances the drug dramas depicted on the screen. Yet this is a distinctly different look and an indication--along with "Twin Peaks," "Ferris Bueller," "Parker Lewis Can't Lose!," "American Chronicles" and another somewhat-interesting NBC newcomer titled "Hull High"--of prime time's new sharp veer toward heavily stylized production that accentuates mood.

Aiming for humor while zooming in on an inner city school, "Hull High" is one of five new series--along with the unscreened "Class of Beverly Hills" on Fox, "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," "Ferris Bueller" and "Parker Lewis Can't Lose!"--focusing primarily on teen-agers.

Consequently--and perhaps in response to the MTV generation--music is another noticeable mini-drift in prime time. Like "Cop Rock," "Hull High" has music components and production numbers. "Parker Lewis Can't Lose!" and "Ferris Bueller" integrate music too.

Even that old staple, the crime series, is gaining credibility (and numbers) on TV. The eight newcomers that fall under that broad banner seem to be a generally pretty good lot. They range from "Cop Rock" and "DEA" to "Over My Dead Body," a breezy CBS series that makes up for what it lacks in plot and suspense with chemistry between Edward Woodward and Jessica Lundy, playing a mystery writer/obit writer crime-solving team.

James Earl Jones has some nice moments as a parolee-turned-investigator in ABC's "Gabriel's Fire" (premiering Wednesday). His golden tubes alone are worth an hour of your time. Meanwhile, on NBC's "Law & Order" (beginning Thursday) criminals first get arrested and then tried, and it's fairly interesting stuff, albeit a tight squeeze in an hour. Infinitely more grating is Fox's "Against the Law," which gives America a flamboyant defense attorney whose obnoxious courtroom antics merit capital punishment. Then, too, there's Sharon Gless as a public defender--should be some crime themes here--in the unscreened CBS series, "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" (beginning next Monday). In addition, a cartoonish super-hero capable of super-speed is the crime-busting protagonist of an unscreened CBS series called "The Flash."

Enough of crime. For TV not-so-boldly looking at itself, finally, there's "WIOU." It's a CBS drama series about a ratty big-city TV news operation. Good cast, bad story on the pilot (which won't be seen until after the World Series in late October). Maybe if it were set to music. . . .

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