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Networks Stick With the Tried and True for New Series Hopefuls

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two government agents investigate paranormal phenomena.

That description applies to “The X-Files,” but also to the 1978 NBC series “Project U.F.O.,” which was produced by Jack Webb, featured “Just the facts, ma’am” dialogue and didn’t have anyone swooning over sexual chemistry between the leads.

The disparity between those shows is one problem in trying to analyze television series’ development at this early stage, when just about everything sounds the same. That said, a few trends do appear to be emerging based on a preliminary sampling of candidates for next season, where nostalgia, familiar faces and pedigreed producers are among the most notable themes.

“People are pretty surprised how run-of-the-mill it is,” said one TV producer who’s sitting out this year’s development derby. “There’s nothing really that unique.”

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ABC has bought a proposed sitcom that would reunite Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper--with grown daughters--as the characters they played on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The same network is planning a “Fantasy Island” revival (not to be confused with “The Love Boat: The Next Wave,” which washes up on UPN in April) and is toying with a new version of “Love, American Style.”

Other contenders for next year feature new takes on old heroes, with NBC calling on the creator of “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” to reinvent “Wonder Woman” and Fox preparing “The Invisible Man,” starring “Twin Peaks’ ” Kyle MacLachlan. Both characters were featured in series during the 1970s.

As always, whatever’s popular one season tends to influence choices for the following year. As a result, at least two series reference Fox’s “Ally McBeal,” including the WB’s “Felicity"--described as “Ally McBeal goes to college"--and NBC’s “Providence,” about a young doctor who returns to her hometown.

Former series stars are also lining up for possible returns to prime time. John Larroquette would star in a new CBS version of the British series “Fawlty Towers,” “Dream On’s” Brian Benben will play a TV reporter in another possible CBS show, and the same network will bring back Arsenio Hall in a one-hour action-comedy show, “Skip Chasers,” playing a bail bondsman.

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ABC, meanwhile, brings together Kathy Baker (“Picket Fences”) and Amy Brenneman (“NYPD Blue”) in “ATF,” playing Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. The network is also building a sitcom around Nancy Travis, who last starred in CBS’ “Almost Perfect,” and will even seek to recapture “Full House’s” magic with a comedy featuring twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Networks continue to salivate over the prospect of luring movie stars to television. CBS wooed Melanie Griffith to do her first sitcom, Nathan Lane will star in an NBC comedy from “Frasier’s” creative team, and negotiations continue to unite the creators of “3rd Rock From the Sun” and Bette Midler on a comedy that will probably end up at ABC.

Feature talent is in demand behind the scenes as well. Eddie Murphy will produce “The PJ’s,” a stop-motion animated show set in a housing project that Fox hopes will become its next “The Simpsons” or “King of the Hill.”

Directors Sydney Pollack (“Out of Africa”) and Barry Sonnenfeld (“Men in Black”) are among the other movie names affixed to pilots, while horror-meister Wes Craven ventures into television, teaming with Shaun Cassidy (yes, the onetime “Hardy Boys” teen heartthrob) on “Hollyweird,” about a young couple that investigates strange doings in L.A. Some question, however, whether such filmmakers can be relied upon to maintain a hands-on role with ongoing series.

The networks will also look to producers of existing hits to replicate that success. NBC has commissioned another comedy from the trio behind “Friends” and two projects from “ER” producer John Wells: “Trinity,” about an Irish family living in Hell’s Kitchen; and “The Adversaries,” which will try to do for prosecutors and defenders what “ER” did for doctors. “Homicide” producer Tom Fontana’s latest drama is a CBS pilot, “Family Brood,” about firefighters.

In terms of intriguing concepts, the producers of “thirtysomething” are behind “The Castle,” a medieval drama already jokingly dubbed “1200-something.” And at Fox there’s “Brimstone,” about a dead detective dispatched by Satan to track down escapees from hell.

Television series spun off from movies such as “Timecop” and “Dangerous Minds” recently fizzled in the ratings, perhaps one reason such adaptations are in short supply this year. Fox is developing a sitcom based on the feature “Soul Food.”

“Beverly Hills, 90210" alumnus Luke Perry has also been cast in “The Game,” an ABC pilot about sports agents that will doubtless elicit comparisons to “Jerry Maguire.” Given the uncertain lot of series hopefuls, however, the motto here would probably be, “Show me the viewers.”

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