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New Season--Same Old, Same Old : Caution Is the Byword for Fall TV--Most of the Series Are Clones

Free at last! Yes, largely unburdened by innovation and liberated from the cruel, pinching bonds of creativity, the four networks have crafted 28 new series for the 1991-92 fall season that, with few exceptions, boldly and brazenly break old ground.

In terms of new product, over-the-air television is once again teetering on the cutting edge of caution, a development that may bode poorly for an industry desperately in need of something dramatic to stem the hemorrhaging of its audience.

Based on a sampling of the 23 series available for preview, there appears to be nothing on this assembly line to generate sparks or even intense discussion, nothing to match the fervor or controversy that greeted some of the new series that opened the 1990-91 season. Nothing risky to love or hate a la “Cop Rock” or “Twin Peaks.” Nothing as earthily alluring as “Evening Shade.” Nothing as educational or provocative as “Lifestories.” Nothing as charming as the mid-season “Northern Exposure.” And, heaven knows, nothing to stir your passions like that departed oldie, “thirtysomething,” and no satire to keep you in stitches a la “The Simpsons.”

That’s true even though 17 of this season’s new series are comedies and another four are dramas that aim to make you laugh. All of which is not necessarily anything to grin about.

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Not that the networks would shield you from reality. No, sir . This season’s three “reality” additions bring to 13 the number of such shows on the prime-time schedule, including five that simultaneously monitor and celebrate law-enforcement agencies.

There’s safety, if not imagination, in cloning. Conservatism is only one symptom of the network malaise, however. Some of television’s brightest contemporary series--from “Moonlighting” to “St. Elsewhere"--reworked well-used forms, but did so in ways so vibrant and exciting that they exuded a freshness that belied their origins.

That is hardly the case this fall. There are few thrills among the copies and very little to induce you to alter your present viewing habits. So let’s call it The Season to Continue Watching What You Have Been Watching. Or rent a video.

COMEDIES

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* “Home Improvement,” ABC, 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays: Not to be confused with the ABC period drama “Homefront” following later that evening, this is one of the new season’s rare promising comedies, with stand-up comic Tim Allen at times very funny as a TV handyman who is lethally dangerous when it comes to fixing things at home. Debuts Sept. 17.

* “Sibs,” ABC, 10 p.m. Wednesdays: Another promising comedy, this one from James L. Brooks and some of the others behind “The Simpsons” and “The Tracey Ullman Show.” Three sisters, played by Marsha Mason, Margaret Colin and Jami Gertz, are from different generations and rarely see eye to eye. What sounds trite on paper turns out to be very engaging on the screen, in part because of the three starring actresses and supporting players Alex Rocco and Dan Castellaneta (who’s the voice of Homer Simpson). Special premiere Sept. 17.

* “Good & Evil,” ABC, 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays: A third promising comedy. (The short list arguably ends here.) As in “Sibs,” the protagonists are sisters of vastly different stripes, with Margaret Whitton and Teri Garr working well together as the “good” and the “evil” sisters, respectively. The characters are almost stridently over the top, as in “Soap,” an earlier hit comedy from the same creative team, Witt-Thomas-Harris Productions. But the sibling rivalry--some might call it hatred--produces some brisk comedy. Debuts Sept. 25 .

* “The Royal Family,” CBS, 8 p.m. Wednesdays: Despite being created by, yes, Eddie Murphy , this is about as novel as Eddie Cantor. And not quite as funny. Redd Foxx and Della Reese are a couple with plans for retirement. Things are just swell until . . . until . . . their daughter and her three kids move in. Oh nohhhhhh. Oh, yes. Debuts Sept. 18.

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* “Teech,” CBS, 8:30 p.m., Wednesdays: “Royal Family” is followed by a royal pain, with Phill Lewis playing an inner-city school teacher who somehow winds up teaching music appreciation in a snooty private school where the principal despises him. Naturally. Meanwhile, how will Teech, who is black, rein in four unruly white students who give him trouble? The same way Gabe Kaplan handled the four “sweathogs” on virtually identical “Welcome Back, Kotter” in the late ‘70s. Debuts Sept. 18.

* “Drexell’s Class,” Fox, 8:30 p.m. Thursdays: Is this a bad season for teachers or what? This time it’s Dabney Coleman having problems with his students at a school where the principal despises him. Coleman is a master at playing nasty characters like Drexell. Unfortunately, this time he is eclipsed in nastiness by the little twerps in his class. Debuts Sept. 19.

* “Step by Step,” ABC, 8:30 p.m. Fridays: What do you get when a divorced father of three children and widow with three children marry and merge their families under one roof? Yes, one roof ? Zaniness, that’s what. Plus Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers in a dreadful sitcom retreading prime-time past, step by step by step. Debuts Sept. 20.

* “Princesses,” CBS, 8 p.m. Fridays: In a season of such klunkers, something as benign as this rates almost a rave review. Three young women from diverse backgrounds become roomies in New York. The stars are Julie Hagerty, Fran Drescher and Twiggy, who is bulkier than most of the writing. Debuts Sept. 27.

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* “Brooklyn Bridge,” CBS, 8:30 p.m. Fridays: Producer Gary David Goldberg has hit it big (“Family Ties”) and small (last season’s “American Dreamer”). With nothing to preview, we withhold judgment on his latest effort, a comedy about a 14-year-old’s relationship with his overprotective grandmother in 1956. Debuts Sept. 20.

* “Flesh ‘n’ Blood,” NBC, 9:30 p.m. Fridays: A hick and his family invade a swanky neighborhood, bringing with them their rural naivete and ignorance of big-city ways. No, not “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but a new comedy from the creators of terrific “Cheers.” Only this time, viewers may need the stiff drink, as Lisa Darr plays an upstanding lawyer and David Keith her long-lost illiterate deadbeat brother who moves himself and his kids into her house and DRIVES HER CRAZY! Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Debuts Sept. 19.

* “The Torkelsons,” NBC, 8:30 p.m. Saturdays: More TV-style hillbillies, these a mother ‘n’ her five kids livin’ in rural Oklahoma. Connie Ray is eccentric Millicent Torkelson, who is so poor that she makes clothes out of curtains. Scarlett O’Hara did that in “Gone With the Wind,” and she wasn’t funny either. Debuts Sept. 21.

* “Nurses,” NBC, 9:30 p.m. Saturdays: They’re overworked and under-appreciated, but always funny. Well, isn’t that always the case with nurses? This challenges “Step by Step” as the low of the season. If only TV producers could be sued for malpractice. Debuts Sept. 14.

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* “Eerie, Ind.,” NBC, 7:30 Sundays: Eerie, indeed, as 13-year-old Marshall Teller and his friend, Simon, are gathering evidence to prove that strangeness is happening in this seemingly idyllic small town. Would you believe twin boys vacuum-sealed by their mother every night since 1964 to keep them ageless? This is a clever idea that is sometimes executed with wit and charm, but somehow never quite gets over the hump. And with “60 Minutes” and “Life Goes On” as competition, the hump may get even bigger. Debuts Sept. 15.

* “Man of the People,” NBC, 8 p.m. Sundays: An amiable half-hour with James Garner again playing his familiar likable rogue, this time as a small-town hustler and scam artist who goes straight when he becomes a city councilman who thwarts the schemes of conniving politicians. Debuts Sept. 15.

* “Pacific Station,” NBC, 8:30 p.m. Sundays: The setting is Venice, Calif., where Robert Guillaume is an old-fashioned cop who is unhappily saddled--what?--with a new zany partner played by Richard Libertini. Oh, BOY, are these guys mismatched. Stop me if you’ve heard THIS before. Debuts Sept. 15.

* “Roc,” Fox, 8:30 p.m. Sundays: Charles Dutton is a penny-pinching garbage collector living in an eclectic household with his sassy wife, opinionated father and manipulative younger brother. Mildly funny. Already premiered.

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* “Herman’s Head,” Fox, 9:30 p.m. Sundays: The various sides of Herman’s personality assume human shape while battling inside his brain to control his destiny. William Ragsdale is Herman, a fact he may wish to forget given what is on the screen. Already premiered.

FUNNY DRAMAS

* “Pros and Cons,” ABC, 8 p.m. Thursdays: This is the unpreviewed ash residue from “Gabriel’s Fire,” last season’s worthy drama series that ABC found unworthy of renewal in its original form. Emmy winner James Earl Jones is back as Gabriel Bird, as is Emmy winner Madge Sinclair as girlfriend/soon-to-become bride. The once-somber Bird has now lightened up, and instead of working for an attorney has taken on a detective partner played by Richard Crenna. The cast is as good as any on TV, but Gabriel’s fire still may be preferable to his funnybone. Debuts Sept. 26.

* “Palace Guard,” CBS, 10 p.m. Fridays: Another unpreviewed hour, this one about a notorious hotel thief who is hired to be security chief by the owner of the last hotel chain he hit before being arrested. He’s accompanied everywhere by an ex-movie queen who is the chain’s publicity chief. Naturally they don’t get along. Debuts Oct. 21.

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* “The Commish,” ABC, 10 p.m. Saturdays: After playing John Belushi (in “Wired”), Michael Chiklis was an ideal choice to play a jokester of a police chief who inspires his staff while angering his superiors. And as a bonus, “The Commish” plays just like a “Saturday Night Live” parody. Debuts Sept. 28.

* “P.S. I Luv U,” CBS, 10 p.m. Saturdays: Connie Selleca and Greg Evigan are characters--he’s a cop, she’s a con artist--who are placed in a witness protection program, relocated to Palm Springs and given new identities as man and wife. But here’s the twist: They don’t get along at all ! Debuts Sept. 15.

HEAVY DRAMA FOR SERIOUS THINKERS

* “Homefront,” ABC, 10 p.m. Tuesdays: This is a sort of postwar “Knots Landing,” with its huge cast of characters reeling from affairs and various traumas in 1945 somewhere in the Midwest. Or as ABC says, “Against this vibrant backdrop, these people will make deals, make compromises, make discoveries, make mistakes, make history, make babies and, most important of all, make the future.” And that’s just the first episode. Debuts Sept. 24.

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* “I’ll Fly Away,” NBC, 8 p.m. Tuesdays: “Northern Exposure” creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey are well-intentioned. But their story centering on a white prosecutor practicing liberalism in the South during the civil rights era reeks of self-importance, its flaws eclipsing commendable performances by Sam Waterston as the attorney and Regina Taylor as his black housekeeper. Debuts Oct. 7.

* “Reasonable Doubts,” NBC, 10 p.m. Fridays: Starring Marlee Matlin as a hearing-impaired assistant D.A. and Mark Harmon as the cop assigned as her investigator, this potentially interesting legal drama gets off to a plodding start. Nor does it help that Matlin and Harmon do not exactly light up the screen as a team. Debuts Sept. 26.

REALITY

* “FBI: Untold Stories,” ABC, 9 p.m. Thursdays: One day every agency of government--including the post office--will have its own reality series. Now, preceding the holdover “American Detectives,” comes the FBI, whose cases are recalled here through the memories of agents, interviews, file footage and, of course, dramatizations. Yadda yadda yadda. Debuts Sept. 26.

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* “The Adventures of Mark & Brian,” NBC, 7 p.m. Sundays: If you’re turned off by the Adventures of Mike, Morley and Ed, watch morning radio personalities Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps act out their fantasies (those appropriate for family TV). In a preview tonight, they open as backup singers for the Temptations; on Thursday they’re back to try surrogate parenting. Or, unless they catch on fast against heavy competition, watch them disappear. (See extended review, F12.)

EVERYTHING ELSE

* “The Carol Burnett Show,” CBS, 9 p.m. Fridays: After a stint on NBC, Burnett returns to the network where she became a superstar with a variety hour that was unavailable for previewing. When she’s on, and when her material’s on, she’s the best. Tentative debut Nov. 1.

* “The Ultimate Challenge,” Fox, 9 p.m. Fridays: Two--yes two --hours of daredevils galore competing against each other by jumping off buildings, capturing crocodiles and doing so many other incredible things that there’s no room to list them. This has not been previewed. Because it’s from the producers of “American Gladiators,” however, the ultimate challenge likely will be just watching it. Debuts Friday.

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