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THE MAKING OF "SECOND NOAH' // Prime-time family values

It's over quickly and ends in a punchline, but the meaning is not lost: Midway into the premiere episode of Second Noah, a mother prays.

Eyes squeezed shut, she breathes deeply and exhales. No melodrama, no piety. Just another mother testing her faith.

But on network TV? Such reverence doesn't happen much these days, in an entertainment era where God can't compete for ratings against big breasts and great hair.

That Second Noah, ABC's new, admittedly value-centered, family drama (Mondays, 8 p.m., WFTS-Ch. 28), even got on the air is a testament to the belief that real Americans _ everyday folk who watch TV, not the Armani-clad, loafers-without-socks-wearing executives who program it _ have had little luck finding images of themselves on TV lately.

Not so long ago there were the Ingallses and Waltons, the Cunninghams and Huxtables, families who laughed together and weren't afraid to cry together. But somewhere in the 1980s, America's cynicism invaded TV. Bundy Family Values ruled, as parents and children bickered their way into the laugh track, and dramas that tried to deal with faith seriously fell by way of the cancellation axe. Remember Christy? Gone. So are Against the Grain, Brooklyn Bridge, South Central and countless others, replaced by shows with crooked cops and greedy lawyers and doctors who have sex in the supply room.

Last fall, even ABC _ long considered America's family network _ abandoned the genre, opting for hip sitcoms aimed at a younger audience. Of more than 100 current prime-time broadcast series, only four can legitimately call themselves family dramas. Of those, two _ Touched By An Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman _ toil in unglamorous Saturday night timeslots. A third, the sexy Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, often strays more into romance and adventure than family fare.

The other _ Fox's recent Golden Globe winner Party of Five _ is forced to use music, fashion and sex to lure the MTV crowd, mixing just enough humor and teen angst for mainstream viewers conditioned to reject programs based on the simple premise of a family coping with the hand fate has dealt.

There will be no confusion when Second Noah debuts Monday. The show was conceived by former NBC entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff _ the man who oversaw the creation of Cheers, Hill Street Blues and The Cosby Show _ after he saw a painting called Second Noah. He was intrigued by the thought of a modern-day Noah saving the children and animals society abandoned, two-by-two.

But for an unconventional clan, this show oozes traditional family values. The producers and cast of Second Noah, filmed and set in Tampa Bay, wouldn't have it any other way.

"When I first read the script, it touched me," said Daniel Hugh Kelly, the former Hardcastle & McCormick star who plays Noah. "That's rare."

Initially, the bigwigs weren't so sure. Though the show scored highest with test audiences among all of ABC's prospective new series last spring, the network didn't make room for Second Noah on the fall schedule. To Tartikoff, whose New World Entertainment pitched the show to ABC, it was a classic case of the Hollywood Hives.

"There's a lot of spirituality in this show, a lot of emotion. (ABC) was afraid of it, nervous," he said.

Creator and executive producer Pam Long, an Alabama native, understands from an outsider's perspective:

"(Hollywood) people always get nervous if you talk about religion. It's rather schizophrenic: More than 50-million Americans go someplace to worship each week, but Hollywood thinks it's taboo. So we end up with all these television shows avoiding what most of America does."

Long and Tartikoff are quick to point out that Second Noah will not preach or proselytize, but seeks to explore the highs and lows of building a family and keeping it strong. If ultra-conservative groups embrace it, great. Ditto for the politically correct crowd. As Tartikoff campaigns: "We're like a third party candidate. We need everybody."

The Beckett family, viewers will learn, is a makeshift creation of adoptive do-gooders Noah (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and Jesse (Betsy Brantley). Among their eight children are a 17-year-old boy with a toddler son, twins who were abandoned and placed up for grabs in a newspaper ad, and a 10-year-old abused by her natural mother. Adding to the confusion are the exotic animals that Jesse, a Busch Gardens vet, has rescued and keeps on the family grounds.

"A loving family doesn't have to be a perfect family," says Brantley, a North Carolina-bred Presbyterian. "But they have to be caring, and they have to be there for each other. Even on TV, you have to show children they have someone to depend on."

Politicizing aside, Second Noah's storylines will track the normal, often lighthearted, crises of an enormous family's chaotic life. Which parent will stay home with the kids? Will the adopted twins try to find their biological mom? Why didn't the African-American daughter get invited to the all-white party? Should a dad cheat to win the soap box derby for a son who has lost everything?

"Every week, you're going to laugh a lot and cry at least once," Long declares. "If I haven't done that, I haven't done my job."