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A Mickey Mouse Network (or, Smiles, Everyone! Smiles!)

It is generally believed among those who know that ABC is the network in the biggest heap of doggie doo. NBC's in a creative rut, but as long as millions of slack-jawed idiots will turn the clicker to Suddenly Susan each week, why should Warren and the boys tax themselves? CBS can't shake that network of old fogies albatross but, hey, at least someone's watching. FOX is FOX, so if it doesn't shit on its leg, that's progress. As for the WB and UPN, they're young so we'll excuse the occasional (ahem, Hitz) indiscretions. But ABC, that's another matter. This, the argument goes, is the network without an identity, a plan, a clue.

I think this line of argument is unfair to ABC, but more to the point, I think it's unfair to Jamie Tarses, the network's programming president -- its brain, if you will. The fact of the matter is that Tarses most certainly does have a clue. And she most definitely has a plan. If these naysayers -- and, regretfully, we must count members of the TeeVee community in this lot -- would stop their carping long enough to breathe, they would see that Jamie Tarses is a woman who knows what she wants. She's also willing to go to great, sometimes personal, lengths to get it. So what if sleeping her way to a four-episode order of Over the Top didn't quite have the payoff she wanted.

No single programming decision better exemplifies the savvy of Tarses the Strategist than ABC's new fall offerings. Realizing that the network Disney built has strayed from its roots of late with gritty, hard-edged dramas like NYPD Blue and ambitious sitcoms like The Drew Carey Show, Tarses is shrewdly returning ABC to the playbook of its glory days, to a time when tireless, affable comedies like Coach and Full House filled the airwaves; to a day when inane silliness like Fantasy Island was the country's rage.

It starts with, of all things, the all-new Fantasy Island (Saturdays, 9 p.m.) which picks up where the original series left off -- a dirty old man and his midget manservant screw with people's lives -- and takes the conceit to its logical limits: a dirty old man, two manservants, and a leggy brunette, none of them midgets, screw with people's lives. Malcom McDowell takes over as Mr. Roarke. McDowell is a rare bird, incapable of bullshit in an industry where bullshit is an aperitif. Asked why Fantasy Island, he could have waxed poetic about reaching back to a more innocent time or the wonders of escapist television, as Tarses the Publicist did at ABC's press junket. Instead McDowell was brutally frank. "The steady paycheck," he said. Some day, I assure you, candor like that will be rewarded.

Obviously, not everyone will agree with the revival of Mr. Roarke. (Tattoo is, alas, still dead.) "Really pushing the creative envelope with this one, Jamie," the other network honchos will doubtless sneer when they all gather at their annual retreat in the Hamptons to smoke fat cigars and plan the end of civilization. "What else do you have in development? Baretta II?" But this is when Tarses the Genius will knock them dead. She will point out that ABC introduced a whole slate of original dramas last year -- Nothing Sacred, Cracker, C-16, Total Security, the immortal Push -- and nobody watched. Fantasy Island, on the other hand, has a built-in audience. With the curious, its small but still loyal fan base, and any new watchers the show manages to snare, let's face it, the Island is a dead bang guarantee to make it six, even seven episodes.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Les Moonves.

Of course, while Jamie Tarses' flair for the dramatic is not to be discounted, comedy is where her real gift lies. We are after all talking about the executive who, a year before all the Johnny-come-latelies, correctly deduced that there was laughter to be mined in beautiful people bitching about their sex lives. Nowadays you can't throw a rock at your Sony without hitting some third-rate Friends knockoff. But there was a time, believe it or not, when Tarses the Explorer braved a trail that only FOX's little-seen Wild Oats had dared to travel.

So it should come as no surprise that ABC next fall will be rich in laugh-out-loud funnies. For instance, Two of a Kind (Fridays, 8 p.m.) features the long-awaited return of the Olsen twins, those lovable imps from Full House who gave us hours of yuks alone with their butchered readings of "Katsopolis." Two of a Kind, an inspired sitcom that examines the relationship between two mischievous sisters and their exasperated father, should provide a healthy antidote to the wry, self-conscious, mean-spirited humor that's so in vogue these days.

Here are the others:

  • Brother's Keeper (Fridays, 9:30 p.m.) stars William Ragsdale in a daring, innovative sitcom that examines the relationship between a square professor, his cute-as-a-button son, and the professor's no-good brother, a star for the 49ers. Apparently brother has a reputation as a carouser, and the NFL -- invoking its famous Good Citizens policy -- has decreed that he must live with a responsible adult. No, really. Folks who appreciate landmark moments in American comedy will recognize Ragsdale as the former star of Herman's Head.

  • Sports Night (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.) is one of those rare workplace sitcoms. Peter Krause and Josh Charles are two glib anchors for a nightly cable sports show that somehow also manages to work Robert Guillaume into the mix. Word is he'll be grumpy. Aaron Sorkin (screenwriter for "A Few Good Men"), Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard -- three guys whose last names could be Damnfunny -- produce.

  • The Secret Lives of Men (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m.) explores the unspoken bond between guys who've screwed up everything they've ever touched. While this subject has been scrutinized before -- most notably in the seminal FOX sitcom Misery Loves Company, starring the incomparable Dennis Boutsikaris -- this promises to be the most penetrating, humorous look yet. Because if nothing else, history has taught us that ideas improve with time. Peter Gallagher leads the ensemble cast.

  • And finally, D.L. Hughley stars in The Hughleys (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.) as Darryl Hughley, a black man who's uncomfortable with the trappings of middle class life. I'm not as hopeful for this show because it's produced by Chris Rock, the profane Negro comic.

Still, in all the excitement over the comedy revolution sweeping through ABC, it is easy to overlook the more subtle changes that Che Tarses has made to the lineup. For example, Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer have been consolidated with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters, and PrimeTime Live has been rechristened 20/20. This move, I believe, is simply brilliant as it will allow 20/20 to compete seriously with NBC's Dateline for the title of the world's most watched television news show.

There's also Cupid (Saturdays, 10 p.m.), a delightful new drama that poses intriguing medical questions (If a Bellevue psychiatrist falls for a patient who claims to be the fun-loving God of love, is the doctor nuts?) amidst a backdrop of romantic hijinks. Paula Marshall -- who you may recognize from her roles as Michael J. Fox's object of affection on Spin City, Jason Bateman's object of affection on Chicago Sons, Tim Conlon's object of affection on (you guessed it) Wild Oats, and Jerry Seinfeld's object of affection on Seinfeld -- plays the object of affection for Jeremy Piven.

At this point, I realize the curious reader, bowled over by the wonder that is Jamie Tarses, might ask if Ms. Tarses can do any wrong. The short answer to this question is no. But there have been close calls. For example, Mr. Chapel (Thursdays, 8 p.m.). I don't mean to suggest that ABC has erred by placing this show on its fall schedule. Quite the opposite, I fully expect that this stirring little drama -- which stars Michael Madsen as a guy with a sick sense of humor, in a huge departure from his earlier roles -- will do gangbusters in the ratings. But Mr. Chapel very nearly was a public relations disaster because its original name was Vengeance Unlimited... which doesn't make a whole lot of sense if the very premise of the program is "Mr. Chapel obtains justice for the wronged. He's got his limits, however -- he never uses a gun, and he doesn't kill."

Luckily, someone -- Tarses the Logician, I'm sure -- intervened. And, really, that sums up the entire state of ABC. While at one point it may have been fashionable to bash the Mickey Mouse network, I can assure you that is no longer the case, not with matters in Jamie Tarses' capable hands. And thank goodness that's been settled. Because now we can turn our attention to some other piffleweight of a problem that's been blown out of proportion. Nuclear proliferation, for instance.


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