Dark themes are the common thread between this season's upcoming TV flicks

Last season, the networks finally learned how to make crime pay in TV movies and miniseries: Lift a real-life killing from the tabloids, hire a big star, add some scary moments, throw in a derringer, dagger, or ax, then watch the bodies pile up and the rrtings soar. Within the last year, Small Sacrifices (about a child-killer), Killing in a Small Town (about a friend-killer), and Blind Faith (about a wife-killer) have won large audiences, so this fall producers will go back to the police blotters in droves. The 78 TV movies and 11 mini-series that the networks are planning for 1990-91 will offer enough blood, sweat, and fears to stock America’s Most Wanted for years.

When Boston’s Charles Stuart murder case made headlines last winter, CBS’ Rescue 911 drew a huge audience by airing footage of the crime scene, and series producer Arnold Shapiro sprang into production with a CBS movie based on the case. The result, Good Night, Sweet Wife: A Murder in Boston, with Ken Olin as Stuart, airs Sept. 25. Also prominent in the new season’s gallery of evildoers: Peter Strauss as a kidnapper who buries his victim alive in CBS’ 83 Hours ‘Til Dawn, Elizabeth Montgomery as a deranged socialite avenging her son’s rape conviction in CBS’ Sins of the Mother, and Harry Hamlin as a homicidal doctor in ABC’s Deadly Intentions. . . Again?, a fact-based sequel to the 1987 docudrama. NBC will save most of its mayhem for a pair of four-hour miniseries: The Ninja Murders, about a woman whose husband takes a lethal disliking to his in-laws, and Love You to Death, about a man who kills his wife and then allows his teenage daughter to go to prison for the crime. Also planned for NBC is Deadly Medicine, the true story of a killer pediatric nurse.

Tearjerkers, another TV movie mainstay, will also be well represented in the coming months. thirtysomething‘s creative team will present Home Video, an NBC drama in which a teenager struggles to understand the death of his mother (Blair Brown) by watching her in old videotapes. In NBC’s To My Daughter, Rue McClanahan tries to rebuild her family after the death of her favorite child. And ABC plans a disease-dramathon on a scale that could cause a national Kleenex shortage: In The Last Best Year (Nov. 4), a terminally ill loner (Bernadette Peters) seeks solace from a friendly therapist (Mary Tyler Moore), and The Guys casts John Lithgow as a writer whose lifelong partner (James Woods) is stricken with lung cancer. The network is also offering When You Remember Me, in which Fred Savage battles muscular dystrophy, institutionalization, and mistreatment, and Our Sons (network TV’s first gay- themed AIDS drama since 1985’s An Early Frost), about two mothers who meet when one of their sons is diagnosed with the disease. Julie Andrews, making her TV-movie debut, will star.

Several other actors who rarely appear on TV will make interesting exceptions this season. NBC has achieved the fall’s biggest casting coup by enlisting Jessica Tandy, in her first post-Driving Miss Daisy role, to star in The Story Lady as a widow who reads children’s books on cable TV. Sidney Poitier will play Thurgood Marshall in ABC’s four-hour mini-series Separate but Equal, and Kathleen Turner will reprise her Broadway performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof if ABC can settle its differences with Tennessee Williams’ literary executors, who are balking at allowing a TV production. Glenn Close and Christopher Walken have filmed CBS’ turn-of-the-century pioneer drama Sarah, Plain and Tall. And in the season’s best stunt casting, Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave will play Hollywood has-been sisters in a long-in-the-works remake of the 1962 chiller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? for ABC.

The coming season will also bring a spate of fictionalized TV biographies and a small army of stars who require varying degrees of ingenuity in the makeup room. Suzanne Pleshette’s eerie physical transformation into Leona Helmsley in CBS’ The Queen of Mean will be unveiled Sept. 23 and will include facial prosthetics; reportedly, Helmsley is not the movie’s biggest fan. This year’s other big-name impersonators will include Jason Robards as Abraham Lincoln in ABC’s The Perfect Tribute, Gary Cole as George Custer in the ABC miniseries Son of the Morning Star, John Ritter as writer L. Frank Baum in NBC’s The Dreamer of Oz, Mark Harmon as gangster John Dillinger in ABC’s Dillinger (with Twin Peaks stem-twister Sherilyn Fenn as his moll), and unknown Rachael Crawford as Olympic ice skater Tai Babilonia in NBC’s On Thin Ice. CBS’ Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter, despite an extensive talent search, still hasn’t filled its title roles. And in the little-makeup-required department, Patty Duke will play herself in ABC’s adaptation of her autobiography, Call Me Anna, while 21-year-old Ari Meyers of Kate & Allie has the tougher task of portraying Duke from age 11 to 16.

Among the dozens of other films in the works, a few are almost certain to be guilty pleasures. Heather Locklear will play a blond, ambitious TV reporter angling for Barbara Eden’s job in CBS’ completely (well, somewhat) fictional Dangerous Women, and Lisa Hartman will try to fend off danger from an outer- space monster in CBS’ Not of This World. NBC has dipped into the bottomless oeuvre of paperback queens Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel; Collins’ six- hour Lucky/Chances will air Oct. 7-9, and Steel’s Fine Things and Kaleidoscope will follow on Oct. 16-17. And the year’s biggest performer-an 1,100-pound special-effects ghoul-has the year’s littlest name: It. ABC’s adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth horror novel will clock in at a comparatively brief four hours on Nov. 18 and 20.