`Golden Girls' break the rules about what's funny

This year's preseason sensation -- the new series all the insiders and experts were predicting would prove to be the most innovative comedy of the year -- arrives on Saturday night . . . and it is, indeed, a very funny show. Not only that, The Golden Girls (NBC, Saturdays starting Sept. 14, 9-9:30 p.m.) is surprisingly mature for prime-time television in both its characters and characterizations. But it is innovative mainly in its demographics. Producer-writer Susan Harris (``Soap'') and director Pail Bogart (``All In The Family'') have dared to create a comedy that revolves around three older single women -- two widows and a divorcee -- who are spending their golden years together in a house in Mia mi, searching for happiness and various levels of companionship. A fourth even-older woman, the mother of one, moves in when her retirement home burns down.

The three women are played with impeccably hilarious skill by three of television's grand dames of comedic acting -- Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan -- aided by Estelle Getty as the daffy Mom. The funny lines -- sometimes just a bit off-color but always in character -- are often not quite as funny as the sight gags, since the show boasts three women who might very well have made their careers in pantomime, so expressive are their faces and body language. If anybody ever doubted the funny-lad y talents of Bea Arthur, even after ``Maude,'' then her many golden moments in ``Golden Girls'' should win her a permanent place in everybody's hierarchy of comic genius, ranking with Sid Caesar and Lucille Ball.

The fact that ``Golden Girls'' got on the NBC schedule at all may be attributed, strangely enough, to the success of ``The Cosby Show'' last season. That comedy proved to be a surprise ``crossover,'' show, appealing to large groups of people who did not fit the specific demographic makeup of its main characters. Cosby and family appealed across the board -- to blacks, whites, young, and old -- mainly because it was honest in its portrayals of real people rather than some computer-inspired ``average'' fa mily.

So, figured the wise programmers and executives at NBC, maybe TV audiences are now prepared to accept any well-written, well-acted, well-conceived show, even if it lacks the heavy doses of violence and mass-appeal humor that prime-time audiences usually expect -- and get.

``The Golden Girls'' is adult, literate, witty, poignant, funny. And, oh yes, honest.

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