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What's new on cable this fall

What’s new on cable this fall — HBO airs ”Stalin” while Showtime airs comedy specials from Jim Carrey and Tim Allen

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More movies, more series, more specials, more ulcers for network executives: Cable’s 1991-92 season offers something for every viewer who’s feeling disenchanted with network fare and willing to explore the upper reaches of the TV dial.

Many of cable’s most ambitious projects will dive into the deep waters of politics and social history, two areas where broadcast networks often paddle in the shallows. Robert Duvall takes on his biggest role since Lonesome Dove in HBO’s six-hour miniseries Stalin. TNT’s four-hour Iran: Days of Crisis recounts the 1979 hostage taking at the U.S. embassy in Iran; the cast includes Ghost‘s Tony Goldwyn, and George Grizzard as Jimmy Carter. And HBO is adapting a book that was too hot for NBC to handle: journalist Randy Shilts’ AIDS history, And the Band Played On, which Joel Schumacher (Dying Young) will direct. Even the generally genteel Arts & Entertainment Network plays politics — sexual politics, that is — with a miniseries based on Fay Weldon’s novel The Cloning of Joanna May, from the team that created bizarre Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

The rest of the season’s movie lineup will be doing what cable dows best — luring big stars to unique projects. TNT reunites Don’t Look Now‘s Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in The Railway Station Man, and Gena Rowlands and Holly Hunter, who played mother and daughter in last winter’s Once Around, do it again in TNT’s Crazy in Love, which depicts a crumbling marriage. Their Once Around costar Richard Dreyfuss also turns up on cable, in Ken Russell’s Prisoner of Honor, which recounts — of course — the Dreyfus Affair. Memphis casts Cybill Shepherd as a little boy’s kidnapper; the actress wrote the script with Last Picture Show author Larry McMurtry from a novel by Civil War historian Shelby Foote. Kris Kristofferson portrays a 19th-century frontiersman in TNT’s Christmas-themed Miracle in the Wilderness, and Jack Lemmon plays a millionaire who decides to start from scratch in HBO’s Getting There. Jodie Foster and Dennis Hopper costar in the thriller Catchfire when the long-shelved theatrical release arrives on Showtime in December, and Jason Robards will star in the Disney Channel’s Mark Twain and Me.

Lifetime’s biggest name is off camera — Diane Keaton, who is directing her first TV movie, Wildflower, with Beau Bridges. Two other Lifetime films of note: a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, and Silent Motive, a crime drama that marks Emmy-winner Patricia Wettig’s first post-thirtysomething TV role. Wettig’s ex-”husband,” Timothy Busfield, appears in Strays, which the USA Network promises will be the Arachnophobia of catdom. And although most of USA’s 30 movies will be standard crime-thriller fare, one departure is Princes in Exile, about young cancer patients.

Many of this season’s cable specials will pay tribute to past masters: Groucho Marx gets a red-carpet retrospective in HBO’s Here He Is…The One, The Only…Groucho, and Jane Fonda salutes her Late father in a TNT hour due in January. HBO’s series on Influences pairs musical veterans with younger counterparts. First up are James Brown and M.C. Hammer and George Jones and Randy Travis. And director Francis Coppola’s legend status may grow after Showtime airs Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, about the troubled shooting of Apocalypse Now.

Comedy, a cable staple for years, remains plentiful. Showtime offers performances by In Living Color‘s elastic-limbed Jim Carrey and Home Improvement‘s Tim Allen. And HBO is bringing recent Off Broadway hits to TV: John Leguizamo’s multi-character monologue, Mambo Mouth, and Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney’s The Kathy & Mo Show. HBO has also lined up Michael McKean and Elliott Gould for Sessions, a Billy Crystal-produced sitcom (actually, a lie-down-on-the-couch-com) about therapy; and Dream On, which ends its current run on Oct. 6, returns with 20 more episodes next year. Look for new episodes of Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Comics Only as well.

Among cable’s few drama series, USA’s Christopher Plummer thriller, Counterstrike, will add two new characters when it returns Sept. 21, and January will bring the first of 50 new Swamp Thing segments and 15 fresh installments of the durable horror anthology The Hitchhiker. USA will also launch Beyond Reality, a suspense series about parapsychologists. The Family Channel travels to Zimbabwe to shoot the new adventure Freedom Ranch, with Glenn Ford and Catherine Bach, and A&E is importing England’s Lovejoy, starring Ian McShane as an antiques dealer with an investigative bent.

Cable will even try to beat the networks at one of their specialities: reruns. On Sept. 16, TNT viewers can start to lather themselves in nearly 700 hours of vintage ’80s soap when weekday repeats of Dallas and Knots Landing begin. And when the Sci-Fi Channel beams down later this winter, its mainstays will be rebroadcasts — including 17 episodes of The Prisoner and all 1,225 half hours of the original Dark Shadows.