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Tune in for same old song

As television dramas enter the '90s, the schlock of the old hasn't given way to the shock and spunk of the new as many TV critics predicted. When the dismal 1989 TV season ended in May with so few big hits, critics around the country decried the lack of innovative programing. But amazingly, much of the same old stuff still lingers on the tube. And even more amazing to me is the reason why: So many TV watchers apparently really like the tired-formula fare.

Take the category of cops and robbers. The consistent ratings winners are still basic good guy/bad guy shows. A look at the ratings so far this fall indicates that the most-watched adventure shows aren't the risk-takers.

Consider this. The oddball dramas on TV, mainly ABC's Cop Rock and Twin Peaks, are struggling to find a steady audience. Last week, Twin Peaks finished 74th, with Cop Rock hitting 80th. Yet look at some of the proven performers _ namely NBC's Matlock (14th), NBC's In the Heat of the Night (17th) and ABC's Father Dowling Mysteries (often ranking in the 50s, but currently 60th, following a change in networks and going head-to-head with Cosby and The Simpsons.)

There's little spark of originality among this trio of dramas. They continue to dwell in the most comfortable, familiar niche

found on the small screen. Even the plots on Heat of the Night, Father Dowling and Matlock are retooled, the series' creators tell me.

"Originality is tough in a business where there's a 28-work week schedule for 22 one-hourshows," says Matlock writer Robert Bielak.

Yet Cop Rock creator Steven Bochco sang quite a different tune when he introduced his new series to TV critics this summer. His series, which combines police drama with ballads and production numbers, is bold and chancy.

Bochco, who created ground-breaking dramas L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues, wouldn't have it any other way.

He told us: "Any time you do a new show, particularly if it's something that people aren't used to seeing, there's going to be a lot of resistance. What we're hoping, obviously, is that in the course of time, they'll get used to it and enjoy it."

That hasn't happened with the recent crop of crime-related shows. But three old-style series, whose creators admit they constantly crib ideas, even from others' scripts and stories, continue to score acceptable numbers.

Does the viewing public know just how stale these dramas truly are?

For example, a recent episode of ABC's Father Dowling Mysteries, titled The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, didn't have a puzzle-like plot to solve. In fact, the story about Satan testing the strength of Sister Steve (Tracy Nelson) is remarkably similar to the 1930s classic short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, written by Stephen Vincent Benet.

"Television is a paradox," explains Stuart M. Kaminsky, former chairman of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University and now head of Florida State University's Asolo film and television conservatory in Sarasota.

"The TV audience expects an absolutely original episode each week. But people also want to identify with what they saw the week before," he says.

Kaminsky, author of the paperback Writing for Television (Dell Publishing, $8.95), says that when viewers see a story on television that seems familiar that's because "you really did see it before!"

He adds, "It's not uncommon to not only do remakes of other series, but to also recycle scripts. Why? Because it's easier that way. Producers are saving time and money because they're dealing with something that has already worked before. This is done constantly in the television industry."

As for ripping off the classics such as the Father Dowling version of Daniel Webster, Kaminsky says he'd like to see more of that. "At least, we're getting something literate. There are some not very literate people writing television today."

To their credit, Heat of the Night, Father Dowling and Matlock do provide plenty of action and adventure. And the three are tempered with solid values, devoid of much exploitation.

But also present are the crucial life-and-death situations with predictable storylines week after week _ the guts of these kinds of warmed-over crime melodramas.

Dean Hargrove, who wrote The Devil episode for Father Dowling says that segment is actually a combination of the 1941 film The Devil and Daniel Webster and the 1946 classic movie Stairway to Heaven, where a World War II pilot pleads for his life in a heavenly court.

"A modest fantasy seems to play well on Father Dowling," explains Hargrove, who adds that he's inspired by films and fiction "and when I'm done with it (rewriting), only the most sophisticated film buff can tell where it's from."

Hargrove, the executive producer of Father Dowling and Matlock, says both shows are based on works of others.

The Father Dowling character, Chicago Catholic parish priest Frank Dowling (Tom Bosley), is drawn from a series of books by Ralph McInerny with the flavor of Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley in the 1944 film Going My Way.

Hargrove is also one of the executive producers of Perry Mason Returns, the occasional two-hour TV movies starring Raymond Burr, who plays a character created by novelist Erle Stanley Gardner. So it's not surprising that NBC's Matlock, starring Andy Griffith as top defense attorney Bern Matlock, is a Mason clone, even down to Matlock's last-minute courtroom revelations. Hargrove, who had been a writer on the earlier Columbo series (1971-78), also gives Matlock some Columbo-like qualities: Both are so nice, few can resist talking to them. Both make great use in their crime-solving of others' slips of the tongue. Both slyly nail the culprit.

Hargrove says that he even takes made-up drug or poison references from other films. For example, for years when his characters were drugged, it was with monocaine, which was used in the 1933 film The Invisible Man to make the hero, played by Claude Rains, disappear.

"I'll look through reference books or call a doctor for cause and effect," Hargrove explains. "But we always give a real drug a fake name." In The Lawyer, a recent Matlock episode, Griffith's Atlanta lawyer character is drugged with oxinol, which Hargrove says with a laugh is a phoney name derived from the detergent Oxidol. "So some imagination does come into play."

Hargrove says that in writing mystery, police, courtroom and private-eye dramas for television, it's "easy to get stale and repetitive." The shows he's connected with (which he labels "the volume story business") employ a number of free-lance writers. However, he also sees a lot of unoriginal work from them. "But then," he asks, "how much invention is there in the world?"

Hargrove adds, "A Matlock can't be compared to a Playhouse 90 (a dramatic anthology series from 1956-61). But I also believe that melodramatic stories on television today are better than they were 10 years ago because we pay a lot more attention to story and character."

Rather than crib ideas from previous scripts, some writers pay close attention to current events, drawing plots from incidents in the news.

"I'd like to tell you it's original," says writer Robert Bielak of the recent episode he scripted for NBC's In The Heat of the Night. (The series, starring Carroll O'Connor and Howard Rollins Jr., is based on the characters created by novelist John Ball and later portrayed in the 1967 Oscar-winning movie.)

Bielak wrote a recent episode, titled Perversions of Justice. The segment is about a male grade-school teacher accused of child molestation. The man is innocent (the boy lied about being harmed), but the teacher's reputation is badly damaged by press reports and community gossip. In the end, the teacher commits suicide. Bielak says the episode was his reaction to the McMartin case in Los Angeles. (This past summer, in what is the nation's longest, costliest criminal prosecution case, child molestation charges against preschool owner Raymond Buckey were dismissed.)

But topical themes aside, maybe the reason the public wants dramas without song and dance (as on Cop Rock) or without an unsolved murder (as on Twin Peaks) is expressed by Bob Mackowiak, editor of Private Eye magazine.

Mackowiak is one person I'd expect to want more depth and risk-taking on TV whodunits. But he says he's relatively satisfied with the standard TV series that deal with crime-fighting.

"I let myself get carried away with the performances and go along for the entertainment," says Mackowiak.

And that level of viewer satisfaction is what Hargrove asserts he's aiming for with his Matlock and Father Dowling series. "We establish a format," says Hargrove, "and then try not to abuse the loyalty of those who watch."