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TV REVIEWS : Capital Cut-Ups in ‘Hearts Afire’; Bikers Bond in ‘Crossroads’

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

The fall season continues to unfold with the debut of two series tonight, a comedy on CBS and a drama on ABC.

Although CBS is billing “Hearts Afire” as a “politically topical” comedy, only its Capitol Hill setting and an unfunny joke about Anita Hill initially rate that label.

Instead, the first two episodes of this unevenly amusing series are mostly about the hostile-turning-romantic relationship between amiable senatorial aide John Hartman (John Ritter) and tightly strung former journalist Georgie Anne Lahti (Markie Post), a penniless former hot shot who is down on her luck.

The hour premiere (at 8 tonight on Channels 2 and 8; the half-hour series hereafter will air at 8:30) finds the raging liberal Lahti taking a position as press secretary to Hartman’s Southern conservative boss, the inept, incompetent, completely daft and blustery Sen. Strobe Smithers (George Gaynes), whose primary need is damage control.

Unable to afford her own place, Lahti also moves into the house that the divorced Hartman shares with his two young sons, bringing along her childhood nanny, Miss Lula (Beah Richards).

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Created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (“Designing Women” and “Evening Shade”), “Hearts Afire” surrounds Hartman and Lahti mostly with bizarre characters who are either over the top or poised on the edge, foremost among them the Professor Irwin Cory-like Sen. Smithers and his sleep-in hillbilly secretary (Beth Broderick), who sells bikinis on the side.

Post is very good as the brusque, neurotic Lahti, and Ritter’s likably soft-hearted, easily embarrassed, benign boob of a character is familiar territory for him. It’s his reactions to everyone else’s outrageousness that provide “Hearts Afire” with its best moments.

Although fun as combatants, Post and Ritter are much less convincing as potential lovers--no chemistry there--and Ritter is an especially tough sale as a romantic lead. But selling the unsalable is what politics is all about.

*

Nothing taps our wanderlust more than seeing someone exchange the manacles of urban society for the freedom of nomadic life on the road.

The experience was available vicariously in the early 1960s via the CBS series “Route 66,” when viewers could follow the weekly adventures of two young men zooming cross country in a Corvette.

NBC’s “Then Came Bronson” accomplished the same thing in 1969-70, with its alienated biker hero hoping to find life’s meaning by shedding his material possessions for a town-to-town existence in which he supported himself by taking odd jobs. Each episode began with Bronson saying, “Hang in there” to a motorist dreamily eyeing him on his motorcycle.

Now comes the uneasy riders of “Crossroads,” ABC’s attractive new series about a father and his hostile 16-year-old son getting to know the nation and each other as they tool across Middle America on a vintage motorcycle. It arrives tonight (at 10 p.m. on KABC-TV Channel 7 and KGTV-TV Channel 10, and at about 9 p.m., when the football game ends, on KEYT-TV Channel 3 and KESQ-TV Channel 42), with a rerun at 10 p.m. Wednesday in advance of the series resuming in its regular 9 p.m. Saturday time period on Sept. 26.

Bronson’s spirit lives in “Crossroads,” where Johnny Dawkins (Robert Urich) puts on hold his career as a star New York prosecutor and attorney general hopeful to travel with his estranged, troubled son, Dylan (Dalton James), who has lived with his grandparents since his mother’s death.

They spend most of the premiere stranded in Hannibal, Mo., helping an eccentric old farmer named Oscar fulfill his dream of putting to sea with the 40-foot sailboat he’s been building in his barn for three decades.

If a bit far-fetched, it’s still a nice tale, with James and Urich (who keeps getting new series despite a string of failures) turning in capable performances and Roberts Blossom doing nicely as the born-again sailor who winds up confounding the skeptical townspeople.

“Crossroads” asks you to believe that week after week Johnny and Dylan coincidentally arrive at a place just when some issue there is reaching a crisis point. They arrive in Hannibal just as Oscar is putting the finishing touches to his boat and needs their help to haul it to water.

In the much sounder second episode, Johnny and Dylan surface in rural Montana just when a good-looking former model requires their skills to fight a conspiracy to oust her from land where she has created a sanctuary for injured wolves.

The ending is too tidy and simplistic. Yet besides creating an interesting romantic triangle, the story has the sensitivity and courage to take the side of the wolves over the hunters and cattlemen seeking to destroy them, turning an hour of television into a celebration of an exquisite wild animal which has been falsely maligned.

“Crossroads” grows on you. Hang in there.


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