Inside looks at "What Happened?," "Final Appeal," and more

(CBS, 8-8:30 p.m.; premieres Sept. 18)
*CONCEPT: The Golden Girls in Fawlty Towers.
*COMMENTARY: This revamped, de-Bea Arthur-ized version of The Golden Girls finds Betty White, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan buying and running a Miami Beach hotel, the Golden Palace. In an attempt to bring fresh blood into a seven-year-old show, the producers have decided to skew weird—hey, let’s cast Cheech Marin as a wacky hotel chef and let the girls bounce off him! The hotel setting also offers the chance for the trio to interact with newly registered guests (and guest stars) each week.
*BEHIND THE SCENES: With a new network, a new format, and a new supporting cast, The Golden Palace, says executive producer Paul Junger Witt, offers a chance to ”get rid of some of the bathwater and keep the baby.” So far, the definition of bathwater has been very flexible. British actor Alexei Sayle— whom Witt called ”one of the funniest men who works in the English language” after hiring him to play the hotel cook—was replaced by Marin just days after starting work. ”Cheech is a wonderful addition,” says Witt.

*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: There may be another year of life in the old Girls yet, but no more than that.

(NBC, 8-8:30 p.m.; premieres Sept. 18, 8-9 p.m.)
*CONCEPT: Inadequately Solved Mysteries. *COMMENTARY: Robert Stack is host of this Unsolved Mysteries spin-off in which convicted criminals are given another look, as inmates present evidence they think proves their innocence. The appeal of Final Appeal is that it might permit some innocent people to be set free; the unpleasant aspect of the show is that the victims of these real-life crimes have to relive their bad experiences after the cases supposedly have been closed.

*BEHIND THE SCENES: What’s the hardest part of making Final Appeal? Executive producer John Cosgrove offers a familiar show-biz gripe: Everybody wants to be a star. ”There are approximately 750,000 convicts in prisons around the U.S.,” he says. ”Each and every one of them says they’re innocent. The challenge is to find cases where there’s actual evidence.” Those cases are few and far between; only about one in 50 of the sob stories researched by Cosgrove’s team will make it to the air.

*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: The lure of crime-based reality TV is powerful, but this probably won’t be one of America’s most wanted series.

(NBC, 8:30-9 p.m.; premieres Sept. 25)
*CONCEPT: When Bad Things Happen to Big Objects.
*COMMENTARY: NBC rounds out its reality hour with this Ken Howard hosted effort, a series that examines everything from collapsing buildings to the plane crash that killed singer Ricky Nelson in 1985 and tries to figure how these disasters occurred. It’s a way to show lots of dramatic news footage and put a scientific, documentary spin on it.

*BEHIND THE SCENES: ”With the bad rap reality shows are getting, this was a way to take the high ground,” says executive producer Robert Jaffe, whose show was a last-minute addition after NBC decided to schedule infotainment rather than comedy on Fridays. ”The networks need inexpensive programs,” adds Jaffe, who calls What Happened? ”pretty low-budget. Not every show can be a $2 million episode of Cheers.” But at least Cheers has laughs; What Happened?, with its relentless focus on the likes of burning airplanes, bids to become TV’s most depressing show. ”We have stories by survivors and rescuers, too,” says Jaffe. But he admits, ”We’re not getting any discounts on airfares.”

*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: Tiny; this one’s a time killer until NBC can figure out what to do with Fridays.

(NBC, 9-10 p.m.; premieres Sept. 18, 9-11 p.m.)
*CONCEPT: The Rookies meets St. Elmo’s Fire.
*COMMENTARY: Still more fab-young-folks-facing-life drama; this time it’s not a school or an apartment house or a band that bands them together, but a bar, the neighborhood fern-place where these upwardly mobile Washington, D.C., professionals go to unwind. Sitting at the Round Table are young lawyers, a rookie cop, a new Secret Service man, and a fledgling FBI agent. They’re idealistic but tempted by corruption, hot-bodied but game for a comic subplot: For instance, the Secret Service guy takes a V.I.P.’s doggy for a walk, and the poor yapper is run over. Har-har; any more pretzels, barkeep?

*BEHIND THE SCENES: Here’s what makes this gaggle of twentysomethings different from their brethren on half a dozen other new shows this fall: “This is not a bunch of attractive young people talking about their next date or moaning about bad food in a restaurant,” says Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment. “Their (actions) have life-or-death consequences.” Nonetheless, an Aaron Spelling series is an Aaron Spelling series; the venerable producer admits that almost every one of Round Table‘s actors was also up for a part on one of his other youth dramas. *CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: A long shot; The Round Table‘s target audience doesn’t stay home on Friday nights.

(CBS, 9:30-10 p.m.; premieres Sept. 18, 8:30-9 p.m.)
*CONCEPT: Bob Newhart, and that’s good enough for us.
*COMMENTARY: Newhart brings his button-down mind to bear on a new character, Bob McKay, a middle-aged comic-book artist who is caught up in today’s high-powered, pop-acculturated comics industry. As usual, the wise Newhart remains the still, wry center in a show that surrounds him with amusing supporting players, including Carlene Watkins as McKay’s wife, John Cygan as a younger, manically aggressive cartoonist, and, best of all, Cynthia Stevenson (The Player), who is hilarious as Bob’s charmingly, alarmingly neurotic daughter. Shrewd and quick, Bob looks like a surefire winner. *BEHIND THE SCENES: In the wake of the long-running Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, does the star feel pressure to achieve the near-impossible-three hits in a row? “No question,” he says. “I feel it. But it’s a good pressure—it gets the adrenaline going and makes you think.” If Newhart seems fairly relaxed, the reason may be that he has three powerhouses in his corner: Bill and Cheri Eichen Steinkellner and Phoef Sutton, the Emmy winners who all steered Cheers for years before CBS lured them away.

*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: As the capstone of CBS’ strong Friday comedy lineup, Bob should flourish against three weaker new shows on the other networks.

(ABC, 9:30-10 p.m.; premieres Sept. 18)
*CONCEPT: So murky even ABC doesn’t know for sure.
*COMMENTARY: It’s supposed to be a sitcom centered on a suburban home in which the neighborhood kids feel more comfortable than they do in their own houses. It stars Mary Page Keller, whose track record for getting stuck in bad sitcoms (Duet, Baby Talk) is becoming her primary credit. Still under wraps as we write, Camp Wilder had better be pretty wild, pretty quickly, to keep from becoming Camp Canceled.

*BEHIND THE SCENES: Already the problem child of the new season, Camp Wilder has undergone quite an evolution since ABC ordered it last May; so far, the show has lost its original title (Camp Bicknell), its original cast, and, possibly, its original emphasis—nobody seems sure whether the show is now about a young single mom or her teenage brother. Ironically, the last ABC comedy to go through this many offscreen gyrations was Baby Talk-the show Camp Wilder is replacing. *CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: Against CBS’ Bob? Not if there’s any justice in this world.

(Fox, 9:30-10 p.m.; premieres Sept. 11)
*CONCEPT: Police Squad! meets Law & Order.

*COMMENTARY: Here’s something fresh: a quirky grown-up mystery-comedy-drama. Sam McMurray, a resourceful sketch actor from The Tracey Ullman Show, plays veteran police detective Marshak (no first name), who talks straight into the camera as if we were his new partner. It’s a clever gimmick-with Marshak parodying hard-boiled detective dialogue and throwing in some physical comedy as well. He talks us through his cases like an old pro showing a rookie cop the ropes; we see only what the rookie sees, and solve the crime along with Marshak. If Likely Suspects maintains the clever intricacy of its pilot, it will be one of Fox’s classier efforts.

*BEHIND THE SCENES: “It’s a cromedy,” McMurray says of Likely Suspects, “half crime and half-well, you know.” And the show’s intriguing premise has drawn interesting talent, both on camera (Mission: Impossible‘s Barbara Bain is a guest villainess) and off (sometime Law & Order director Don Scardino shot the pilot). McMurray’s sole complaint: Doing a comedy without an audience makes timing tricky. “I’m not sure we always (allow) enough time for the joke to sink in,” he says. “And sometimes I might make it too slapstick or broad because I don’t know how it’s playing.”

*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: Clever show, wrong night. Fox will have to move it or lose it.

(CBS, 10-11 p.m.; premieres Sept. 18, 9-11 p.m.)
*CONCEPT: Twin Peaks meets Matlock meets Family meets Northern Exposure meets Laurie Hill meets…

*COMMENTARY: In little Rome, Wis., live Sheriff Jimmy Brock, his doctor-wife, Jill, and their three children. As played by Tom Skerritt, the craggy sex symbol of Guess? fashion ads, and Kathy Baker (Edward Scissorhands), the Brocks are earnest, solid folks who represent law and medicine in their tiny community. Picket Fences was created by L.A. Law‘s David E. Kelley and, in its muted way, clearly yearns for instant classy-drama status. But the pilot suggests that Kelley is populating Rome with a few too many Northern Exposure-type eccentrics to be taken seriously.

*BEHIND THE SCENES: “I’d like people to say, Is this a drama or is this a comedy?” says Kelley, who admits that Picket Fences‘ odd blend of heart and macbre humor may not be what viewers want after a long workweek. “I see this as a Tuesday or Wednesday show,” he says. “Honestly, this isn’t a show I think people would watch while they’re dozing in and out.” But CBS remains extremely high on the series. “I’m a baby-boom viewer,” says Peter Tortorici, CBS’ No. 2 programmer, “and I’m home Fridays at 10. I think a quality drama can succeed there.”

*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: A very tough sell, especially against ABC’s popular 20/20 and NBC’s own classy drama I’ll Fly Away. Without great reviews (and probably a new time slot), it’s a goner.