Preview '94 : Fall's Ever-Changing Family : 5 ORPHANS STICK TOGETHER, 4 SISTERS-IN-LAW BATTLE MOM, 2 DRAMAS GO SCALPEL TO SCALPEL AND 28 SERIES SEEK A LIVING SPACE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Welcome to the fall TV season, that heavily hyped time of year when optimism reigns at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox--until the ratings roll in and nervous Nellies scramble to find replacements for any of the 28 new shows going down in flames. Our advice? Take a seat in front of the small screen--fire retardant material is strictly optional--and decide for yourself whether any of these rookies is really smokin.'

SUNDAY

KEY SHOWS

The indomitable duo of "60 Minutes" and "Murder, She Wrote" will not be preceded by pro football this year, but it nevertheless figures to carry the night for CBS, which has its eye on winning a prime-time crown for the fourth straight season.

"EARTH 2" Sundays 7-8 p.m. NBC. Premieres in November.

The premise: Colonists crash-land on a planet thousands of miles from their destination in this futuristic adventure. Raised in sterile space stations, these pioneers (Debrah Farentino, Clancy Brown and Antonio Sabato Jr., among others) face perilous situations as they begin life anew in a pristine environment.

The possibilities: Nothing is more perilous in TV than facing Mike Wallace and the staff of "60 Minutes," which may never stop ticking. Like "seaQuest DSV," "Earth 2" is co-produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Television, which, judging by most of last year's drab "seaQuest" episodes, is not necessarily a good thing.

"FORTUNE HUNTER" Sundays 7-8 p.m. Fox. Premiered Sept. 4.

The premise: The title character is Carlton Dial (Mark Frankel), a suave spy with a perfect record for Intercept, a global recovery organization. Dial's daring missions are monitored by dweebish Harry Flack (John Robert Hoffman) with the help of a high-tech telemetry system. Not surprisingly, the charming Dial has a knack for snappy repartee. Beautiful blonde who's entered his hotel room: "The bellboy let me in." Dial: "Hooray for the bellboy."

The possibilities: The mission Frankel has chosen to accept also puts him on a collision course with "60 Minutes." Fox sees its relatively nonviolent hour of escapism as a compatible follow-up to newly acquired NFL games, which are predominantly watched by men. Whether the show can score each week may hinge on its acceptance by women, who will bond with Frankel in the network's estimation.

"ON OUR OWN" Sundays 7:30-8 p.m. ABC. Premieres Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. Moves to its regular slot Sept. 18.

The premise: Newcomer Ralph Louis Harris plays the 20-year-old head of a household with six children whose parents died in a car crash. When an officious bureaucrat threatens to split the family unless it can find a suitable guardian, Harris grabs a dress, stuffs a bra and transforms himself into Aunt Jelcinda, their buxom, bespectacled savior. And faster than you can say Mrs. Doubtfire, the stuffy children's services boss (Roger Aaron Brown) is serenading Harris, uh, Jelcinda with a chorus of "Chances Are."

The possibilities: Dressing in drag did wonders for Robin Williams, but it probably won't earn Nielsen points for this farce from "Full House" executive producers Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett, who have hired real-life siblings (the Smolletts) to play the kids. Small fry on their own would be wise to keep the remote handy.

"HARDBALL" Sundays 8:30-9 p.m. Fox. Premiered Sept. 4.

The premise: This "sportscom" from executive producers Kevin Curran and Jeff Martin ("The Good Life") follows a hapless baseball team. Veteran pitcher Dave Logan (Bruce Greenwood) has a new, no-nonsense manager (Dann Florek) hired by the team's salty owner (Rose Marie). One of the Pioneers' overpaid players wins $3 million in the lottery. "I really wanna do something good with this money," he tells his mates. "I think I'll buy a Lamborghini."

The possibilities: The ageless "Murder, She Wrote" plays hardball with any competitor that crosses its basepath, which could mean a quick shower for Greenwood ("St. Elsewhere") and Co. On the other hand, this comedy should get a decent lead-in from "The Simpsons" while going to bat against the second halves of "seaQuest DSV" and "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman." One bad sign: Fox reshot the pilot, dropping a couple of supporting characters and adding a few others.

"WILD OATS" Sundays 9:30-10 p.m. Fox. Premiered Sept. 4.

The premise: The subject of s-e-x comes up a lot in this sitcom about two pairs of young roommates. Jack (Tim Conlon) is a glib, shallow photographer living with Brian (Paul Rudd), the sweet and sensitive type. Jack broke up with Shelly (Paula Marshall), a teacher who lives with the unlucky-in-love Liz (Jana Marie Hupp). Jack and Shelly have a love-hate thing going that threatens to spoil her budding relationship with Brian. Shelly on seeing Brian: "It's like dating Beavis thinking you can avoid Butt-head."

The possibilities: Many have tried ("Good Grief," "Daddy Dearest," "The George Carlin Show") and most have failed to hold the audience supplied by "Married . . . With Children," the longest-running sitcom on TV. Chalk this one up as another casualty. Or do you think a show about people "chumming for nasty" really stands a chance?

MONDAY

KEY SHOWS

There goes the neighborhood. "Melrose Place," which earned its highest ratings to date with a scintillating season finale last May, hopes to pick up where it left off in spite of moving to a new night and earlier time. One year older, CBS' "Murphy Brown" and "Love & War" are still strong enough to fend off NBC movies and Fox's new "Party of Five."

"PARTY OF FIVE" Mondays 9-10 p.m. Fox. Premieres Monday.

The premise: Like the kids of ABC's "On Our Own," the Salingers of this gentle family drama also lost their parents in a tragic car accident. The difference is 24-year-old Charlie (Matthew Fox), who serves as legal guardian for his four siblings (including Scott Wolf, Neve Campbell and Lacey Chabert). As the adult in the group, Charlie has much to learn about finances and responsibility, while the younger ones cope with school, music lessons and lost loves. Their one agreement is to consistently meet for dinner at their late father's restaurant, where there's always room--you got it--for a party of five.

The possibilities: Whether the Nielsen families can make room in their busy schedule for the Salingers remains to be seen, especially since the stiff opposition includes the popular CBS duo of "Murphy Brown" and "Love & War." One thing is certain: Rest assured Dan Quayle will not question this brood's sturdy family values.

"BLUE SKIES" Mondays 10:30-11 p.m. ABC. Premieres Monday.

The premise: Corey Parker and Matt Roth play best friends and partners in a mail-order catalogue business whose first-year profits have been siphoned off by their accountant. Enter Ellie Baskin (Julia Campbell), a bright and capable Harvard grad eager to boost earnings and become a partner. The immediate question facing the fellas, who are both attracted to Ellie, is whether they're willing to share the wealth while keeping their minds on business--and off dating.

The possibilities: Dark clouds may hover over the early going of this sitcom from former writers of "Coach," which provides the lead-in. "Blue Skies" is stuck opposite the CBS hit "Northern Exposure" and NBC movies on the West Coast, though it goes up against "Dave's World" and "Blossom" at 8:30 p.m. in other parts of the country. Translation: ABC will have to exercise extreme patience, much as it did with "Coach," which gradually hit its stride after going on the air in 1989.

TUESDAY

KEY SHOWS

After months of widespread speculation on the impending showdown between "Roseanne" and the transplanted "Frasier," ABC blinked and moved its popular sitcom to Wednesday along with the Ellen DeGeneres comedy "Ellen." That's the good news for NBC and Kelsey Grammer. The bad news is they will square off against Tim Allen and last year's top-rated sitcom, "Home Improvement," which moves over from Wednesday with "Grace Under Fire." Meanwhile, David Caruso will exit "NYPD Blue" after the season's fourth episode, making way for a new character played by former "L.A. Law" star Jimmy Smits, who originally was considered for Caruso's role as John Kelly.

"ME AND THE BOYS" Tuesdays 8:30-9 p.m. ABC. Premieres Sept. 20.

The premise: Think of this comedy as "My Three Sons" since it concerns a middle-class widower (Steve Harvey) and his trio of boys. Instead of Uncle Charley, the dad relies on help from his wise mother-in-law (Madge Sinclair). Dad is a disciplinarian who gets on his sons about everything. "See, I figure," he tells a friend, "if I give 'em enough trouble at home, then they won't have to go out looking for none."

The possibilities: There will be no trouble for Harvey's show if it holds viewers waiting around for "Home Improvement." Fair warning, however. "Phenom's" ratings last year were seemingly acceptable for this coveted slot, but it was still dumped by the network.

"THE MARTIN SHORT SHOW" Tuesdays 8:30-9 p.m. NBC. Premieres Thursday at 8:30 p.m. Moves to its regular slot Sept. 20.

The premise: Art imitates life as Short is the star of his own variety show. On the set, he's a whirlwind of energy, playing Larry Bird on stilts or creating offbeat characters based on the people in his life. At home, he deals with domestic dilemmas involving his wife (Jan Hooks) and children.

The possibilities: Short, a gifted comic actor who was brilliant on "SCTV," is adept at both physical slapstick and inspired impersonations. Nonetheless, he'll need sharp writing to sustain a loyal following against CBS' established "Rescue 911." NBC is trying to avoid a short run by placing the show between "Wings" and "Frasier," and the casting of "Saturday Night Live" alum Hooks cannot hurt. Ditto for the casting of "SCTV's" Andrea Martin. And look for appearances by pointy-haired Ed Grimley which, I must say, may not be enough to salvage the show.

WEDNESDAY

KEY SHOWS

Because of the strategical switch by ABC, "Roseanne" and "Ellen" will double up against the ladies and gents of Fox's "Models Inc.," which was mauled by "Home Improvement" throughout the summer. Roseanne's vulnerable challenger on CBS is "Touched by an Angel," an hour bedeviled by brutal scheduling that is easily one of the most endangered shows on the slate.

"THE BOYS ARE BACK" Wednesdays 8-8:30 p.m. CBS. Premieres tonight at 8. Moves to its regular slot Sept. 21.

The premise: Hal Linden and Suzanne Pleshette reluctantly open their home to two down-on-their-luck sons just when they were looking forward to sharing an empty nest of their own. Consequently that nest is quickly filled by unemployed Mike (George Newbern), who has a wife and two kids, as well as Rick (Kevin Crowley), who was kicked out by his wife. Linden thinks Pleshette is secretly pleased by the developments: "You live to nurture," he gripes. "It's like a sickness with you."

The possibilities: In the network's original plan, "Boys" was set for Mondays at 8 p.m., where it would have met "Melrose Place" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Its chances for survival seem no better on Wednesdays despite the pairing of Linden and Pleshette, who have had hits in the past with "Barney Miller" and "The Bob Newhart Show," respectively.

"THE COSBY MYSTERIES" Wednesdays 8-9 p.m. NBC. Premieres Sept. 21.

The premise: In Bill Cosby's return to prime time, he plays a retired New York forensics expert who still loves a mystery. James Naughton is a longtime colleague and the two women in Cosby's life are his housekeeper (Rita Moreno) and therapist (Lynn Whitfield).

The possibilities: There was no room for Cosby on Thursday, his old stomping grounds, so he'll lead off the network's lineup in place of "Unsolved Mysteries," which moves to Friday. The real puzzler is whether viewers will turn to Cos over another small-screen veteran, Ed Asner of ABC's "Thunder Alley." Without good numbers from Bill, the rest of NBC's lineup will be wobbly as Jell-O.

"ALL-AMERICAN GIRL" Wednesdays 8:30-9 p.m. ABC. Premieres Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. Moves to its regular slot Sept. 21.

The premise: Comic Margaret Cho stars in this sitcom, the first to revolve around an Asian-American family. Cho is the headstrong daughter whose petulant behavior exasperates her traditional Korean parents. Mother: "Do you know why I encourage your brother to become a cardiologist?" Daughter: "No." Mother: "Because I always knew that one day you would give me a heart attack."

The possibilities: ABC, which has a solid track record with such comics as Roseanne, Tim Allen and Brett Butler, no doubt, expects similar success for Cho, whose pilot was full of caricatures (including a grandmother who watches a porno film) and stock gags.

"DADDY'S GIRLS" Wednesdays 8:30-9 p.m. CBS. Premieres Sept. 21.

The premise: Pity poor daddy (Dudley Moore), who in this sitcom must suddenly oversee a business without a former partner who ran off with his wife. Now he's staging fashion shows with the help of an insecure middle daughter (Meredith Scott Lynn), while the oldest (Stacy Galina) prepares for marriage to a dull ophthalmologist (Alan Ruck) and the youngest (Keri Russell) goes with a boyfriend named Scar (Phil Buckman). Has any of this given Dudley a headache? "No, fortunately, it's just a massive cerebral hemorrhage," which at least proves he's retained his sense of humor.

The possibilities: Good humor is a rarity in this comedy, which just as easily could be called "My Three Daughters" or "Me and the Girls." Given the choice of Moore's "Girls" and Cho's "All-American Girl," teens will stick with "Beverly Hills, 90210" while adults may be tempted to crack the "Cosby Mysteries."

"TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL" Wednesdays 9-10 p.m. CBS. Premieres Sept. 21.

The premise: An angel (Roma Downey) helps troubled people in this drama co-starring Della Reese as her supervisor.

The possibilities: This variation on "Highway to Heaven" has the dubious distinction of assuming the time slot held last year--for one week--by Glenn Frey's disastrous "South of Sunset." Of course, that was then and this is "Now," which happens to be the Tom Brokaw-Katie Couric newsmagazine opposing "Angel" on NBC. Say a prayer for this one.

THURSDAY

KEY SHOWS

NBC ripped up last year's enormously popular lineup to make room for two new comedies: "Friends" and "Madman of the People." "Seinfeld" should remain atop the Nielsen chart, which may boost "Madman" and "E.R.," one medical drama going scalpel to scalpel with "Chicago Hope," another medical drama.

"MY SO-CALLED LIFE" Thursdays 8-9 p.m. ABC. Premiered Aug. 25.

The premise: This slice-of-life drama from the creators of "thirtysomething" concerns 15-year-old student Angela Chase (Claire Danes). Angela grapples with lofty expectations, boys, peers and friends at school, which she warily refers to as "a battlefieldfor your heart." On the home front, there are conflicts with a stressed mother (Bess Armstrong), unfaithful father (Tom Irwin) and younger sister (Lisa Wilhoit).

The possibilities: By jumping the gun on the fall season, this hourlong series has had the opportunity to establish itself. However, with no chance of toppling NBC's entrenched "Mad About You," "Life" can only avoid death--as in cancellation--by luring teens and young adults from Fox's "Martin" and "Living Single."

"DUE SOUTH" Thursdays 8-9 p.m. CBS. Premieres Sept. 22.

The premise: Paul Gross plays a Royal Canadian Mountie who always gets his man and David Marciano is a Chicago cop who bends the rules. Together, they're determined to rid the Windy City of its bad apples in this cop show. In the two-hour pilot shown last spring, Gross transferred to Chicago to solve the murder of his father, a legendary Mountie "who could track a ghost across sheer ice."

The possibilities: Likable leads and lighthearted humor are the strong suits of this hour created by former "thirtysomething" writer-producer Paul Haggis, but a tough time slot could be its undoing. As things stand, "Due South" may be blown away by the comedies on NBC and Fox.

"FRIENDS" Thursdays 8:30-9 p.m. NBC. Premieres Sept. 22.

The premise: Courteney Cox hangs out with her Manhattan pals in a sitcom from "Dream On" creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane. Among the singles are her older brother (David Schwimmer) whose wife just left him, an actor (Matt LeBlanc), a wise guy (Matthew Perry), a flake (Lisa Kudrow, the ditzy waitress from "Mad About You," See Story, Page 98) and a spoiled beauty (Jennifer Aniston) who jilted her fiance at the altar.

The possibilities: With friends like "Mad About You" preceding it, this comedy has an instant advantage. But don't underestimate their foxy competition, the four femmes from "Living Single," which has proved to be very viewer-friendly indeed.

"MCKENNA" Thursdays 9-10 p.m. ABC. Premieres Thursday.

The premise: Chad Everett, as fit and tanned Jack McKenna, leads vacationers on various adventures through the wilderness of Oregon. The guests fish, hike, climb mountains or ride kayaks, the sort of stuff "they couldn't get at Disney World."

The possibilities: A cross between "A River Runs Through It" and "Ordinary People," as one colleague described it, this drama promises a mix of outdoor adventure and earnest relationships among stalwart characters. Should that formula fail to excite adults, ABC hopes smitten young girls tune in to watch Eric Close, who plays Everett's strapping son, Brick. "Seinfeld" needn't sweat it.

"NEW YORK UNDERCOVER" Thursdays 9-10 p.m. Fox. Premiered Sept. 8.

The premise: Michael DeLorenzo and Malik Yoba are street-savvy police detectives in a cop show from executive producer Dick Wolf ("Law & Order"). Patti D'Arbanville-Quinn is their superior and Gladys Knight plays a singer who owns a club frequented by the officers.

The possibilities: "Law & Order" meets "NYPD Blue" in this series peppered with hip jargon and spirited action underscored with rap plus R&B; on the soundtrack. There's good chemistry between the leads, each of whom seems capable of making a name for himself before the season is over.

"MADMAN OF THE PEOPLE" Thursdays 9:30-10 p.m. NBC. Premieres Sept. 22.

The premise: The madman is none other than Dabney Coleman, who plays an abrasive, award-winning columnist for Your Times, a magazine run by his daughter (Cynthia Gibb). Madman is an opinionated iconoclast whose prickly prose inspires mail from a church official that opens with the cheery salutation "Dear Lowlife . . ."

The possibilities: Two of Coleman's defunct comedies ("Buffalo Bill," "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story") found favor with critics, if not viewers. (We won't even get into "Drexell's Class," which everyone loathed.) This new entry is his best opportunity yet, thanks in large part to the sweet slot he's been given following "Seinfeld," the network's No. 1 show. That's a double-edged sword, of course; sub-par ratings will drive NBC executives quite mad.

"CHICAGO HOPE" Thursdays 10-11 p.m. CBS. Premieres Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. Moves to its regular slot Sept. 22.

The premise: Emmy winner David E. Kelley ("Picket Fences") created this hospital drama with an ensemble cast of Mandy Patinkin, E.G. Marshall, Adam Arkin, Peter MacNicol and Hector Elizondo. Patinkin is a brilliant, self-assured surgeon, Arkin is equally skillful in the operating room and Marshall is a legendary doctor whose age--and shaky hand--have made him a liability.

The possibilities: In "Picket Fences," Kelley has tackled provocative moral, social and ethical issues linked to law enforcement and medicine. Here he will concentrate on life and death as it relates to brain tumors or the delicate separation of Siamese twins, not to mention any other emergencies the writers can concoct.

"ER" Thursdays 10-11 p.m. NBC. Two-hour premiere airs Sept. 19 at 9 p.m. Moves to its regular slot Sept. 22.

The premise: Michael Crichton ("Jurassic Park") wrote the evening's other hospital drama set in the Windy City. The cast includes Anthony Edwards ("Northern Exposure"), Sherry Stringfield ("NYPD Blue") and George Clooney ("Sisters"). Edwards' conscientious Dr. Green, who could use a few extra winks between shifts, is being wooed by a cushy private practice that would pay him $120 grand a year.

The possibilities: Based on the pilots, "E.R." has a darker, slightly more realistic edge, while "Chicago Hope" has a faster pace. Creatively speaking, the bottom line is which show will boast superior writing? Kelley is a hands-on producer who will oversee each script; it's unclear how much input Crichton will have beyond the pilot.

FRIDAY

KEY SHOWS

David E. Kelley will be occupied by "Chicago Hope," perhaps making "Picket Fences" vulnerable to a charge by NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street." In any case, ABC's newsmagazine "20/20" will dominate both dramas.

"M.A.N.T.I.S." Fridays 8-9 p.m. Fox. Premiered Aug. 25.

The premise: Carl Lumbly plays Miles Hawkins, the paraplegic biophysicist who straps on a high-tech harness that transforms him into a crime-fighting hero.

The possibilities: Hawkins has been reducing the crime rate since last month, when he got a head start on his prime-time foes, most notably the nerdish Steve Urkel of ABC's durable "Family Matters." What matters to Fox is whether its action hero can fly higher than "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.," which bit the dust after a single season.

"UNDER SUSPICION" Fridays 9-10 p.m. CBS. Two-hour premiere airs Friday at 9 p.m. Moves to its regular slot Sept. 23.

The premise: Karen Sillas is Rose (Phil) Phillips, the sole female detective on a Northwestern police squad whose partner has disappeared. The drama focuses on her interactions with colleagues, supervisor (Seymour Cassell) and an internal affairs investigator (Philip Casnoff).

The possibilities: Accepted as "one of the boys," Sillas' character is one up on Jane Tennison, who fights for everything she gets as the driven British detective on PBS' "Prime Suspect." Charges of sexism and racism come into play here as well, though on a smaller scale.

SATURDAY

KEY SHOWS

Viewers choosing to stay at home will find a few family shows early in the evening, including "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." At 10 p.m., there's a renewal of the three-way battle among "The Commish," "Sisters" and "Walker, Texas Ranger."

"THE ABC FAMILY MOVIE" Saturdays 8-10 p.m. ABC. Premiered Sept. 10.

The premise: The title tells all as ABC presents a mix of new feature films and remakes of old Disney favorites such as "The Shaggy Dog," "Escape to Witch Mountain" and "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes."

The possibilities: ABC obviously wants kids and their parents or baby-sitters to skip a trip to the video store and stay in for its wholesome entertainment. But what about the adults who prefer racier fare? Well, there's always cable . . .

"SOMETHING WILDER" Saturdays 8-8:30 p.m. NBC. Premieres Oct. 1.

The premise: Originally titled "Young at Heart," this comedy stars Gene Wilder as a late-in-life father with twin toddlers and a young wife (Hillary B. Smith of daytime's "One Life to Live").

The possibilities: With "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "The ABC Family Movie" seeking the same audience, there may be nothing but toddlers left over for Wilder, who's appearing in his first series.

"THE FIVE MRS. BUCHANANS" Saturdays 9-9:30 p.m. CBS. Premieres Sept. 24.

The premise: Judith Ivey ("Down Home") takes another stab at prime-time comedy as one of four women with little in common besides their fear of a malicious mother-in-law (Eileen Heckart). As one of the sisters-in-law puts it, "We pretend to like her. That's what family is all about." Beth Broderick, Harriet Sansom Harris and Charlotte Ross are the scene-stealing co-stars.

The possibilities: The catty comments and witty remarks flow freely in the pilot, which is sparked by tart dialogue. The characters are well-defined and Heckart is a hoot as the manipulative Mother Buchanan. "May I come in," she asks Ivey at her front door. Ivey: "Wouldn't it just be easier to huff and puff and blow the house down?"

"SWEET JUSTICE" Saturdays 9-10 p.m. NBC. Premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. Moves to its regular slot Sept. 24.

The premise: Melissa Gilbert is a Wall Street attorney who moves down South to work with a crusader (Cicely Tyson) in a law office fighting for the underdogs. In the pilot, Gilbert's Kate Delacroy clashes with her father's (Ronny Cox) upscale firm over a child custody case.

The possibilities: Unswayed by the cancellations of "I'll Fly Away" and last year's acclaimed "Against the Grain," NBC evidently sees potential in this Southern-fried drama. Compelling as ever, Tyson gives the show a touch of class.

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