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The fall 1992 TV preview: Thursday

Inside looks at “Martin,” “The Heights,” and more

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RHYTHM & BLUES
*CONCEPT: Amen meets WKRP in Cincinnati.
*COMMENTARY: A struggling black radio station in Detroit hires a wild disc jockey to boost ratings-it’s not until he arrives that the station learns that Bobby Soul (stand-up comic Roger Kabler) is white. The station manager (Amen’s Anna Maria Horsford) wants to fire him because he’s not African-American, but Bobby makes such an impassioned speech about the inspirational powers of Motown that he’s kept on. The premise makes us queasy, but there’s no denying Kabler’s bursting energy and funniness.

*BEHIND THE SCENES: NBC is braced for a Thursday-night war of DJs: Fox’s new Martin, about a black radio personality in Detroit, will also air at 8:30, and although Rhythm‘s pilot tested very well in the network’s research, there are jitters surrounding its white-man-as-savior premise. One concern is a scene in the pilot in which Kabler does an impersonation of the late Redd Foxx. ”Everyone has their statute of limitations,” says Kabler. ”When I do impressions, they’re meant as tributes, not insults. But if enough people are sensitive about it, I won’t do it again.”

*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: Two radio comedies can’t survive in this time period; we bet this one blinks first.

DELTA
(ABC, 8-8:30 p.m.; premieres Tuesday, Sept. 15, 9:30-10 p.m.)
*CONCEPT: Alice goes to Evening Shade.
*COMMENTARY: Yes, Burke is back and she’s blond. She’s also a barmaid in a country-music joint run by Earl Holliman. But she’s a barmaid who boasts that she’s a belter. Her character idolizes Patsy Cline and wants to become a country star. The notion of linking Burke, who got her best laughs on Designing Women as an imperious, pampered urbanite, with the current down-home country boom is pretty dicey. Wanna bet that the show’s sweeps stunt will be Delta wiggling with Billy Ray Cyrus in a special duet of ”Achy Breaky Heart”?

*BEHIND THE SCENES: There’s trouble already (you were expecting peace on the set of a Delta Burke show?), but so far it’s only with the scripts. After seeing the pilot, ABC asked the producers to make Delta more funny-ha-ha and less funny-Hee Haw. As for Burke herself, all’s quiet for now. ”I have my quirks,” she told reporters this summer, ”(but) I don’t pull prima donna stuff. What really pisses me off is when there are certified bitches out there, and nobody writes about them.” The names, Delta, just give us their names!

*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: Only fair. Competition is fierce; ABC needs a big initial audience, and not just Burke’s strong female following.

MARTIN (Fox, 8:30-9 p.m.) *CONCEPT: A funny Talk Radio meets a not-so-white About Last Night…. *COMMENTARY: Anyone watching HBO knows that Martin Lawrence, host of the Def Comedy Jam, is as raunchy as he is charming, which is to say, very. So, going into his first sitcom, Lawrence already seems constrained by its mild premise: This Martin is a fun-loving but sensitive radio talk-show host who discusses things like the changing roles of African-American men. It will take all of Lawrence’s talent as a fast ad-libber to make this career move a wise one.

*BEHIND THE SCENES: There’s already a language barrier between Lawrence, whose best Def Comedy Jam jokes are entirely unprintable, and Fox, which deleted even the relatively innocuous phrase ”kick your ass” from the pilot. Nevertheless, Lawrence assures, ”You’ll be seeing the things I talk about in my (stand-up comedy) act. We just won’t cuss.” As for Lawrence’s softer side, ”My mother is someone who has inspired me,” he says. In tribute, Lawrence dons wig and mascara to play her, with just one variation: ”My mother doesn’t have a mustache, except in the show.”

*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: Good; Martin will certainly do better in this time slot than last year’s dreary Drexell’s Class, and that’s all Fox is asking.

THE HEIGHTS (Fox, 9-10 p.m.)
*CONCEPT: See The Commitments (Fox obviously did).
*COMMENTARY: More young-adult bonding; this time it’s not school or an apartment house that draws a group of attractive New York working-class denizens together but a rock band. As proof of authenticity, Fox says the actors play their own instruments. But The Heights—it’s both the name of the band and the nickname for their neighborhood-suffers from an age-old television and movie problem: The creation of art—whether it’s writing, painting, or, here, music—is an inherently slow, tedious, undramatic process, not the stuff of cool entertainment.

*BEHIND THE SCENES: Eight 20-odd-year-olds splashing in a pool of communal angst; the locations may be East Coast, but the zip code sure sounds like you-know-what. “That’s a misrepresentation,” says Tony Spiridakis, the cocreator of Heights. “This show has lots of interaction with people from many generations.” Nonetheless, during casting season, The Heights was eagerly pursuing the same crop of young performers as every other youth-ensemble show. Actor James Walters was called to audition for several. “This is the one I wanted,” he insists. That’s no surprise: What young actor wouldn’t want to star in a series that showcases its cast in built-in pouty rock videos?

*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: No way. If this band hits it big, we’ll eat their first CD.

RETURNING SHOWS

STREET STORIES (CBS, 9-10 p.m.)
When the Ed Bradley news hour opens its second season on Sept. 10, there’ll be a new face on the street: Deborah Norville.

KNOTS LANDING (CBS, 10-11 p.m.)
Television’s longest-running drama begins its 14th season minus Valene Ewing (actress Joan Van Ark has quit). Look for Valene’s vanishing act to fuel Knots‘ plots when the show returns Oct. 29. Back in the cast is Lorenzo Caccialanza, whose character, Nick, was absent last season. Our advice: Watch now-this is probably going to be Knots‘ last landing.

A DIFFERENT WORLD (NBC, 8-8:30 p.m.) Is there life after Cosby? Now anchoring NBC’s Thursday-night lineup on its own, World will add Cosby cast member Karen Malina-White (she plays Charmaine Brown), but the real focus will be on newlyweds Dwayne and Whitley, whose honeymoon (in the Sept. 24 season premiere) was disrupted by the Los Angeles riots. Out of this World are Jaleesa (actress Dawnn Lewis has moved on to ABC’s Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper) and the Aretha Franklin theme song; the new opener is sung by Boyz II Men.

CHEERS (NBC, 9-9:30 p.m.) Many are betting that Cheers‘ 11th season (beginning Sept. 24) will be its last, and indeed, the bar buddies are in for some tough times—Sam gets down to the nail-biting financial realities of running a bar again, and Frasier and Lilith’s marriage hits the rocks (possibly because actress Bebe Neuwirth is said to be leaving Cheers after eight episodes). Look for a depressed Frasier to contemplate a jump from Cheers‘ roof in an episode shot on location in Boston.

L.A. LAW (NBC, 10-11 p.m)
Okay, we all know that last season reeked-now what? We’re not encouraged by reports of a massive cast purge; when McKenzie, Brackman goes back into business on Oct. 22, say goodbye to Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey, now starring in Love and War), Zoey Clemmons (Cecil Hoffmann), Susan Bloom (Conchata Ferrell), Frank Kittredge (Michael Cumpsty, who has jumped to CBS’ Bob), and C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe). All this, and they kept Benny? Joining the cast is Santa Barbara’s A Martinez as a litigator; new co- executive producers John Masius and John Tinker (St. Elsewhere) promise that an actress will also be added to a series filled with more middle-aged white men than the U.S. Senate.

THE SIMPSONS (Fox, 8-8:30 p.m.)
Guest voices this season include Bob Hope, Leonard Nimoy, Sara Gilbert, and Danny DeVito; don’t miss the episodes in which Marge gets a job at the plant and Bart falls in love.

HOMEFRONT (ABC, 9-10 p.m.)
When new episodes begin on Sept. 17, the ’40s soap will be feeling the pinch of the ’90s recession; in an effort to downsize the show’s large cast, Homefront is dropping actors David Newsom (the recently widowed Hank Metcalf) and Sterling Macer Jr. (GI Robert Davis). This season will emphasize comedy—look for lots of Jeff and Ginger-and romance, especially in a tense triangle composed of good-guy Charlie, sugar-sweet Gina, and conniving Caroline.

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