New York — For the fall TV season, ABC is offering nine new series, one of them marking Lucille Ball's return to television, another starring Ellen Burstyn. Here's a rundown of the shows, based on previews, chats with producers, and industry talk. Remember, almost everything in the new season is subject to late changes, as the networks adjust schedules -- even program concepts -- in last-minute maneuvers to outsmart their competitors in a business where each ratings point means many millions of dollars in profits.
Life with Lucy is one of the most eagerly anticipated shows of the season -- but anticipated with great apprehension. With so many Lucy reruns in syndication, the new Lucy will have to compete with a much younger and more agile screen image. And, even with the incomparable Gale Gordon once again serving as sidekick, can anybody really go home again in this fast-moving electronic age? Miss Ball has surrounded herself with talent from her own production company as well as Aaron Spelling Productions, but the real creative spirit behind it all is Lucy herself. At press time, the premi`ere was not yet available for screening, but this critic, like viewers the world over, is hoping Miss Ball will succeed in taking Saturday night back from the baby sitters.
The Ellen Burstyn Show, following Lucille Ball on Saturday, suggests ABC is really going after the mature crowd. Well, I fear the pairing will mainly make clear that Miss Burstyn, lovely as she is, can't hold a comic candle to Lucy. Nor even to Burstyn's co-star, Elaine Stritch, who plays -- can you believe it? -- her mother. The show is a three-generational family comedy, in which Burstyn plays an uptight college professor whose students study in her home, where her daughter and mother also live. The pilot I saw is being rewritten, reworked, and scheduled later on in the series. That's good.
Our World has the dubious honor of going up against ``The Cosby Show,'' NBC's big hit. This newsmagazine, with co-hosts Linda Ellerbee and Ray Gandolf, blends newsreel footage from recent American history with eyewitness interviews with those who participated in the events. Each broadcast aims to capture a moment in time and, according to Miss Ellerbee, ``It's supposed to be evocative rather than provocative.'' But, rest assured, if Ellerbee is involved, it will be stimulating. ``Our World'' sounds like one of the most interesting new shows on the ABC schedule. Now, if ``The Cosby Show'' will only move to another night . . . .
Heart of the City is still another cop story, this one with troubled teen-agers in the household. Robert Desiderio plays a widowed, crotchety Los Angeles policeman, impatient with incompetence. The several overlapping story lines are reminiscent of ``Hill Street Blues.'' The premi`ere episode is probably one of the best-written pilots of the season, and Desiderio plays the role with integrity and consistency. The question is: Can the show survive opposite ``Golden Girls''?
Sidekicks stars Gil Gerard (who played Buck Rogers a few seasons back) in an offbeat cop show about a policeman who becomes the guardian of an insightful, 10-year-old karate expert who, in turn, becomes his partner in crime-fighting. These two could make a winning pair, depending on the quality of the scripts -- and the viewer pull of ``Dallas,'' airing opposite them.
Jack and Mike is a kind of yuppie version of the cult hit ``Moonlighting.'' Here, though, a young couple juggle careers and marriage with a casual, lighthearted air but a certain seriousness underneath. Jackie (Shelley Hack) is an earnest, crusading newspaper columnist, and Mike (Tom Mason) is owner of some trendy theme restaurants. They seldom see each other, working hours being what they are. To its credit, the program tries to project a social consciousness. But the premi`ere episode shows possibly too much sympathy for a man mistakenly charged with rape, without due regard for the rape victim. Perhaps the social consciousness still needs some fine-tuning. Even so, ``Moonlighting'' fans may find this show an amiable carbon copy.
Starman evokes shades of ``Mork and Mindy.'' Here's another show about a character from a different time and place who has come to Earth. Robert Hays, in the title role, must learn basic things about our world, with the help of a teen-age boy. ``Starman,'' based in part on the 1984 movie of the same title, starts out with pretensions to social criticism. But isn't that the way ``Mork'' began before moving into into science-fiction slapstick? Even though it sounds like another hard-to-sustain concept, it's innovative enough to earn a test tune-in.
Sledge Hammer attempts to satirize violence. Sledge (not Mike) Hammer (get it?) is a cop so trigger happy he fires warning shots over the heads of jaywalkers. As played with utter dumb charm by David Rasche, Hammer talks to his gun, uses excessive force wherever possible, and in general makes Rambo look like Pee-Wee Herman. His favorite charity is Toy Guns for Tots. Although the show may be built on an unsupportable one-joke concept, ``Sledge Hammer'' is funny. But hasn't anybody noticed that making jokes about violence tends to trivialize it? Maybe I am being finicky, but ``Sledge Hammer'' will be treading on dangerous ground unless its creator,Alan Spencer, finds a way to leaven his humor with some acknowledgment of the seriousness of violence in our society.
Head of the Class stars Howard Hesseman, whom viewers may remember as Dr. Johnny Fever of ``WKRP in Cincinnati.'' Here he plays a substitute teacher in a Manhattan high school honors class, in which -- horror of horrors -- an academic study session is preferred over the class dance. He manages to change that and emerges as a hero. It might have made more interesting, though, if the serious students could have remained so, rather than caving in to peer pressure. But the premi`ere program denigrates the idea of serious study so thoroughly that I wonder where the series will take us. Maybe it should have been called ``Revolt of the Nerds,'' since it seems to suggest that studiousness is next to friendlessness.
Unfortunately, few of the shows seem strong enough to lift ABC out of its current third place in the ratings, unless some established shows on CBS, now in second place, falter. Even so, with the cost-cutting program instituted by Capital Cities Communications, the network's new owner, third place may be highly profitable to the company. Show times
A schedule for the series previewed on this page:
The Ellen Burstyn Show, Saturdays, 8:30-9 p.m., starting Sept. 20.
Head of the Class, Wednesdays, 8:30-9 p.m., starting tomorrow.
Heart of the City, Saturdays, 9-10 p.m., previews 9-10:30 p.m. on Sept. 20.
Jack and Mike, Tuesdays, 10-11 p.m., starting 9:30 p.m. tonight.
Life with Lucy, Saturdays, 8-8:30 p.m., starting Sept. 20.
Our World, Thursdays, 8-9 p.m., starting Sept. 25.
Sidekicks, Fridays, 9:30-10 p.m., previews Sept. 26 at 8:30 p.m.; moves to regular time Oct. 3.
Sledge Hammer, Fridays, 9-9:30 p.m., previews 8:30 p.m., Sept. 23; moves to regular time Sept. 26.
Starman, Fridays, 10-11 p.m., special preview Sept. 19 at 9 p.m.