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Same old same old is both bad news and good

After a while, after all those hopeful 23-minute sitcom pilots, there comes a dull numbness.

A deadening sameness that utterly underwhelms you.

Is Thunder Alley bad? Nope. Is it good? Not really.

Just the same.

Gruff grandpa, single mom, three cute kids, a too-shiny set and jokes that strain to please. It's a familiar franchise in television right now. That Thunder Alley was created by the producer of Home Improvement, there's even more familiarity in trademark graphics and editing.

The sole _ and I mean only, lone, one _ reason that Thunder Alley rises out of mediocrity is Ed Asner, who makes his return to network television as a grandfather who allows his adult daughter to move home with her children. His role is a variation on the gruff Lou Grant model, but Asner never could give a bad performance. Even with a featherweight script, he breathes life into his dialogue and imbues his character with some life.

Thunder Alley

Pilot Grade: B-

Tonight at 8:30 on ABC (10)


NBC says it will air And the Band Played On, the award-winning AIDS drama, on Monday, March 28, starting at 9.

The two-hour production, based on the book by the late Randy Shilts about the discovery and rapid spread of the disease, first aired last September on HBO, where it earned a 14.9 rating and a 25 share in the HBO universe of about 17.3-million cable homes.

Aaron Spelling and E. Duke Vincent were executive producers of the show for HBO Pictures. It was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards. The cast of the semi-documentary includes Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Lily Tomlin, Richard Gere and Steve Martin. Shilts died of AIDS complications last month.

Fox Broadcasting says that Linda Gray, who graced Dallas for so many years, will star in the new drama Models, Inc., a spinoff of Melrose Place, which will debut this summer. Linda will play Hillary Michaels, the mother of Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear of Melrose Place) and owner of a successful boutique modeling agency based in L.A. She will be introduced on four episodes of Place starting with the Wednesday, April 27, episode. Additional cast members will be announced.

_ Times wires