Tune In, Turn On

FRIDAY NIGHT AT CHELSEA PIERS IN MANHATTAN, WHERE THEY'RE SHOOTING THE new ABC comedy "Spin City" in a warehouse turned TV studio. Michael J. Fox runs onstage and leaps to high-five his executive producer, Gary David Goldberg. They're jubilant, these guys, because they know--or hope--they've got a sure thing on their hands. Fox is the deputy mayor of New York, reprising his hyperkinetic George Stephanopoulos impersonation from "The American President" and upgrading Alex P. Keaton, the lovable jerk he played on "Family Ties." While "Spin" may not be another "Ties," the windfall that made Fox famous and Goldberg rich, it's the only show on the fall schedule unanimously agreed to be smart, funny and a hit. The studio audience goes wild. They haven't seen the other new shows yet, but they're acting like this is as good as it's going to get.

They may be right. Much bad press has already leaked out about this season's fall crop. Almost all the other new megastar vehicles have been sent back to the drawing board for what is euphemistically termed "retooling." Translation: This thing is a #@*!-ing disaster--we gotta fix it now! Never mind that the biggest hits in recent memory--"ER" and "Friends"--originally starred a bunch of no-names. And never mind that some of the best new shows this year feature more unfa- miliar faces. Network execs still feel safer throwing giant wads of cash at marquee-value talent like Cosby, Danson and, uh, Judd Nelson.

Take CBS's "Ink." Created for hubby-and-wife team Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, this newsroom romance was deemed such a terrible mistake that the first four episodes were scrapped, the launch date postponed and superproducer Diane English ("Murphy Brown") brought in, while Danson blithely danced the Macarena at the Democratic convention. This summer, crotchety old guy Bill Cosby did his own retooling of "Cosby" (also CBS), ousting writers and actors who failed to grasp his vision of a wacky yet wise comedy about a crotchety old guy. The pilot episode of NBC's big new Thursday-night gamble, Brooke Shields in a single- gal sitcom called "Suddenly Susan," was also overhauled. But hey, she looks great. And as her appearance on "Friends" last season demonstrated, Brooke has a goofy gift for physical comedy. Noted comic actor Judd Nelson has also been recruited to save the day. Shockingly, he's pretty good as Brooke's editor boss at a San Francisco paper. And the guy's got more acting experience in one flared nostril than his lovely costar will ever have.

But let us now praise unfamous men--and women. Ray Romano has never modeled Calvin Klein jeans or dated Andre Agassi, so you've probably never heard of him. That, hopefully, will change. He seems right at home in his terribly titled new CBS sitcom, "Everyone Loves Raymond," a suburban "Seinfeld"--Jerry with twins and even crazier parents. "Relativity," ABC's alluring new love story from "thirtysomething" creators Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz, moons over two extremely good-looking twentysomethings (Kimberly Williams and David Conrad) from opposite sides of the tracks who meet in Rome, fall in love, then go back to San Francisco to deal with their star-crossed families. Sort of a "Romeo and Juliet" without the suicide, but more whining. The brooding CBS crime story "EZ Streets" stars an actor who isn't so much new as new to TV: Joe Pantoliano. A veteran character player, he does a charismatic turn here as a psychotic whose organization is infiltrated by an undercover cop (Ken Olin, of "thirtysomething"). Cinematic and unflinchingly dark, "EZ Streets" is easily the most evocative and interesting new drama of the season.

There are now more networks than ever, with UPN and The WB chasing after black viewers, whom the older nets have all but abandoned. Result: UPN's shamelessly bad "Homeboys From Outer Space!" in which a couple of homies from the 'hood cruise the cosmos for females in their "Space Hoopty." But viewer numbers sank to all-time lows last season. Only 65 percent of Nielsen homes were tuned in to network TV; the rest were watching syndicated cheesefests like "Baywatch Nights," dirty movies on HBO, Barney videos, you name it. That's why the folks at CBS, ABC & Co. are desperately trying to sell the notion of "appointment television." NBC is declaring Tuesday its second night, after Thursday, of "Must See TV," now that "Caroline in the City," "Mad About You" and the new "Something So Right" are there. "Something" is a refreshingly tart blended-family comedy, a '90s "Brady Bunch" with a mom (Mel Harris of, you guessed it, "thirtysomething") and dad (Jere Burns) who talk about sex a lot and a hormonally charged son who has the hots for his sister. After proclaiming Saturday "America's night of television," CBS is spinning a new hour of patriotic uplift called "Promised Land" off the feel-good religious drama "Touched by an Angel." On "Promised Land," Gerald McRaney plays the recently downsized dad of a poor-but-happy family who decide to travel the country in their RV helping people in need. If the angels on "Touched" are out to save souls, McRaney's mission seems to be to save this great nation from itself. "What's the difference between America and the United States?" one of his precious tots inquires innocently. "America is what the United States was before they screwed it up," her brother replies with a Timothy McVeigh glaze in his eyes. Yikes. Who's "they," exactly? The Trilateral Commission? The Democrats? NBC?

Possibly the latter. NBC does have a huge conspiracy-freak thing going on. "The X-Files" is the "Friends" of this season: everyone's copying its dark paranormal paranoia. The half-baked "Dark Skies" reveals, for anyone who didn't already know, that aliens killed JFK. This is an impressive feat for creatures that look like oversize calamari. "The Pretender," a charming guy (Michael T. Weiss) who can assume any identity he wants, is the victim of a sinister government-sponsored experiment. And "Profiler" is just a fancy way of saying "psychic cop." It's "Must-Buy-Into-Nutty- Theories TV," after a night of which a plate of calamari may never taste the same.

The season's other trendlet is the classroom. On "Pearl," CBS pairs Rhea Perlman and Malcolm McDowell (together at last for the first time!) as a mature student and her immature professor. "Let me tell you about my favorite subject," brays the silver-haired but still creepy McDowell. "Me." NBC's "Mr. Rhodes" is a long-haired novelist who takes a teaching job at a snooty prep school. We're supposed to think he's cool for saying things like "I'm way psyched, man" and yet ignore the fact that he looks like Kenny G?

The paranoia and back-to-school genres aside, there's less mindless duplication than usual on the schedule this season. A desperate "let's try anything" feeling may have gripped the networks in their last-ditch bid to regain their incredible shrinking audience share. In "Men Behaving Badly" NBC breaks bold new creative ground by having Rob Schneider use his soiled jockey shorts as a coffee filter. Gross but amusing. Fox's "Party Girl" and "Lush Life" try, unsuccessfully, to bring a hip downtown vibe to the network with martini-drinking fashion plates and their campy gay friends. ABC's two teen diversions--"Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and "Clueless"--were movies first: one a hit on Showtime, the other in malls across America. "Clueless" doesn't have Alicia Silverstone as the "as if" girl of Beverly Hills, but Rachel Blanchard makes a totally valiant effort to fill her Mary Janes.

We haven't mentioned "Townies," Molly Ringwald's comeback, or "Common Law" or "Life's Work" or several other shows we'd rather not mention. Suffice it to say that on Ringwald's blue-collar comedy she's upstaged by an actress hitherto best known for her work in an Anthrax video. Some TV shows are beyond retooling. Some shows not even Judd Nelson could save.