What's New, Copycat?

There's a recession on, fellas. People aren't buying, but we're expected to sell." A character named Brian Conover, the president of a conglomerate called Leisure-Tronics, utters that line in CBS's intelligent new series "The Middle Ages," about a group of appliance salesmen faced with a corporate takeover. The line is fiction-but it's a sentiment with which network TV honchos can identify. The Big Three's audience share has been shrinking, Fox's keeps surging. What's a major broadcaster to do? Sell those comfortable old appliances or bet on a sleek, new product line?

This year ABC, CBS and NBC appear to be doing both. One strategy is to rely on a handful of producer-auteurs who've already struck gold-mostly by mining the career-relationship angst of the baby boom. Thus, Diane English, the creator of "Murphy Brown," retools that formula in "Love and War," her urban-singles comedy on CBS. Neal Marlens and Carol Black, who lovingly evoked 1960s nostalgia in "The Wonder Years," now offer "Laurie Hill," an ABC sitcom about working parents that strains for a similarly bittersweet tone. (The show even includes an acoustic-guitar soundtrack by "thirtysomething" and "Wonder Years" composer W. G. [Snuffy] Walden.) And David E. Kelley, former executive producer of "L.A. Law," blends the black humor of that success with a splash of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" sensibility to create the season's best series, CBS's "Picket Fences," about sinister goings-on in a small Wisconsin town.

There's a second game plan at work this fall. Facing the Fox youth-TV onslaught, the networks are blatantly playing copycat. (The exception is CBS, which is moving toward an older audience with both feet.) Twentysomething ensembles have become the dominant social grouping on television-the nuclear families of the 1990s. Aaron Spelling began the craze with Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place." Now Spelling has dispatched a half dozen more ambitious (and interchangeable) hunks and babes to prowl Washington in NBC's "The Round Table." And John Falsey and Joshua Brand, creators of the quirky "Northern Exposure," transplant post-teenage traumas to another exotic setting in ABC's "Going to Extremes." The hook? Students at a Caribbean medical school cope with anatomy classes, romance--even a goat down the well.

Everybody is talking about his generation ... and talking and talking. This year aging baby boomers-from the Willy Lomans of CBS's "The Middle Ages" to the anxious married couple of NBC's bright "Mad About You"-are turning prime time into one long therapy session, agonizing about divorce, impotence, lay-offs, even sticky subway seats. The youngsters-like the black roommates of ABC's "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper"-Cope with their share of problems, too, fretting over career and romantic complications. (Mostly, however, they want to paaarty.) Sex is on everybody's mind, and the "butt" talk has never been raunchier. Many series also strive for contemporary relevance. They address feminism ("Thelma and Louise" jokes abound), race and, in this election year, politics. During a job interview with the FBI, a member of "The Round Table" admits that she smoked marijuana in college. Asks her potential employer: "Yeah, but you didn't inhale-right?" Here's a summary of the 1992-93 season's other highs and lows.

All the "experts"-from network honchos to ad executives--have predicted this will be a hit. The time slot is TV's most enviable, between "Murphy Brown" and "Northern Exposure." The setup is promising: Susan Dey plays a WASP divorce-on-the-rebound who buys and refurbishes a dowdy watering hole. Her suitor, played by Jay Thomas, is a perennially single, Jewish columnist named Jack Stein. ("No marriages, and one live-in relationship that lasted slightly longer than Chanukah," he says.) On paper, many of English's lines are hilarious. So why is "Love and War" such a dud?

For starters nearly every line seems calculated and false. With its gag-every-five-seconds pacing, "Love and War" comes off like a breathless borscht-belt routine. The characters often address the camera, an annoying device that only amplifies their phoniness. Paralyzed with fear outside Thomas's apartment, for instance, Dey worries about date rape: "What if I wind up on the Court Channel with a big blue dot over my face?" Dey is wan and her comic timing is off, Thomas merely obnoxious. When they kiss, and when she asks him point blank, "Would you like to have sex?" the moments come from nowhere. This contraption creaks with contrivance.

The first minutes of the two-hour pilot establish this drama's macabre tone: during the Munchkins routine in a small-town production of "The Wizard of Oz," the Tin Woodman suddenly drops dead. It looks like a stroke but it turns out he's been injected with liquid nicotine. Who killed him? Sheriff Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt) tries to unravel the mystery, a task that places him at odds with his doctor wife (Kathy Baker) and exposes the underside of Rome, Wis. Writer-producer David E. Kelley, 36, weaves black comedy, suspense and sexual tension into a tapestry familiar to fans of his "L.A. Law." The pacing is quick, the grotesque touches plentiful: a corpse in a dishwasher, an overweight Dorothy singing "Over the Rainbow" at the Tin Woodman's funeral, a burned-out nightclub duo known as The Contrition Sisters, who secretly double as call girls. It's a brilliant debut. The question is, can Kelley sustain it?

Nicknamed "Southern Exposure," this Falsey-Brand series seemed promising. But it's just another sun-bleached whine-athon, "Melrose Place" set to a reggae beat. A stock cast-the neurotic nerd, the English stud, the gorgeous professor-muddle through predictable situations and tired shtik. The guys scope a naked babe in the surf, everybody's bummed about being at a third-rate school. And condescension pervades the script, from the livestock gags to the devoted doctor-to-be who can't persuade a black islander to submit to diabetes tests. Better they should check the cast-and writers-for anemia.

This sitcom follows "Seinfeld" Wednesday nights on NBC, a perfect time slot. Stand-up comic Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt play an urban married couple for whom merely getting out the door in the morning is a neuroses-filled ordeal. (One worry: that cat burglars can climb into an llth-floor window.) Reiser, a huggable nebbish, and Hunt play off each other beautifully. "It doesn't bother you that we haven't had sex for five days?" she asks. Reiser shrugs. "We're married five months. The sexual part is over." "Mad About You" is everything "Love and War" isn't. natural, funny and brimming with romantic chemistry.

He's b-a-a-a-ck! Or did he ever leave? Bob Newhart plays a comic-book illustrator whose beloved, dormant creation, the superhuman "Mad Dog," is rediscovered by a communications conglomerate. Trouble is, his new partner wants to tinker with his concept. (Disgusted by Mad Dog's "homoerotic desires," he wants to kill off his sidekick Buddy.) The situation isn't as charming as his Vermont venture, but Newhart's droll manner makes it worth watching on CBS--especially when he's dealing with the wackos at the fascistic AmTramCanCamCo. (Chairman Mr. Terhorst spies on employees even as they ride the elevators.)

Top CBS executives reportedly consider this five-part series to be a downer. True, this ensemble piece, featuring a fortyish Chicago appliance salesman named Walter Cooper (Peter Riegert), his laid-off 60-year-old colleague/father-in-law (James Gammon) and his drinking buddy, a novelty-item peddler who yearns to start a band (William Russ), can get gloomy. Cooper dreams of a girlfriend who killed herself 20 years earlier; he worries about his job after a takeover forces him to switch from selling blenders to cellular phones. But the series' portraits of Willy Lomanish men-boys marching into middle age are haunting and real; and the sadness is leavened by many sweet and funny moments. Tragicomedy is a rare genre on network TV. Who knows? Maybe those CBS execs will recognize their future and expand "Middle Ages" to a full season.

Looking for a break from solipsistic 35-year-olds and partying sun worshipers? Here's another unruly puppy from the Stephen J. Cannell kennel. This hyperviolent-yet-genial hybrid, sort of "Miami Vice" crossed with "The A-Team" and "Wise Guy," is so wackily over the top it could become a CBS hit. Three orphaned young men are groomed to become a bungee-jumping, fedora-bedecked SWAT team. Their mission in episode one: to capture Victory Smith, a Terminator type so mean he locks a small boy into a car trunk and steals his Whitey Ford baseball card. "The Hat Squad's" stylized sadism, with its skewed camera angles, overbright colors and tongue-in-cheek violence, is pure parody--and it works. Now if only they'd work over some of those wimps on "Melrose Place."