A riddle begins the 1992-93 TV season: What kind of audience-torturing knuckleheads would schedule a viewer favorite (Seinfeld), a ratings smash (Home Improvement), a hot-bodied phenomenon (Melrose Place), and a classy war horse (In the Heat of the Night) at the same time? The answer, of course: network executives. And they’re not merely trying to get you to buy an extra VCR or stay home every Wednesday night at nine; they’re grappling for ratings supremacy in what may be the hardest-fought Nielsen contest in years. Thirty-six new series will vie for your attention, and though youth will be served in a half-dozen new dramas showcasing restless, heedless, shirtless, Fox-style angst, there’s plenty in store for the post-Clearasil generation as well: the twentysomething striving of ABC’s Going to Extremes, the thirtysomething newlywed gamesmanship of NBC’s Mad About You, the sophisticated fortysomething romantic entanglements of CBS’ Hearts Afire and Love and War, and (not just ! for sixtysomethings) Bob Newhart, starring in one of the season’s brightest new comedies, CBS’ Bob. Some new shows have already begun, but the official starting date is Monday, Sept. 21, when Murphy Brown, TV’s most famous single mom, finally speaks her mind. Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night, and a roller coaster of a season.


(CBS, 8:30-9 p.m.; premieres Sept. 14, 8-9 p.m.; see review on page 78)
*CONCEPT: Anything But Love meets The Powers That Be.
*COMMENTARY: John Ritter is chief aide to a Southern senator (George Gaynes). Markie Post is the senator’s new press secretary. Ritter and Post’s John and Georgie Ann instantly turn each other on and off—she’s a smoker, he’s not; she’s an impetuous single woman, he’s a divorcing daddy of two. Still, by the end of the first episode, she’s joining him (clothed) in his bathtub. Producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Evening Shade, Designing Women) is out to create a sitcom about a passionate romance. But on weekly TV, passion burns out fast. Maybe Bloodworth-Thomason should have called it Smoldering Hearts.

*BEHIND THE SCENES: Hearts Afire, says Bloodworth-Thomason, will be ”like Designing Women used to (be)—something controversial (could) happen on a Thursday and you might see it on the show Monday.” Given her advisory role in Arkansas pal Bill Clinton’s campaign, that could have meant a lot of political content, but at CBS’ behest, Bloodworth-Thomason will emphasize nonpartisan romance instead. Don’t expect an on-again, off-again courtship, however. ”I want to get these two together right away,” she says. ”It’s more interesting to see a couple who is having sex than a couple who is not.”
*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: Excellent. CBS’ $50 million deal with Bloodworth-Thomason means the network will be very patient.

(CBS, 9:30-10 p.m.; premieres Sept. 21, 10-11 p.m.)
*CONCEPT: Grace Van Owen and graceless Jerry Gold get it on.
*COMMENTARY: From a deliberately trite premise-sensitive woman falls for macho man-Murphy Brown producers Diane English and Joel Shukovsky are striving to create a snappy, original sitcom aided by their stars, Jay Thomas (here he’s only slightly more mannerly as a tough-guy columnist than he was as a loudmouth talk-show host on Murphy) and Susan Dey (she buys the bar in which he hangs out). Love and War suggests that, for TV characters who are squinting at 40 and finding the prospect profoundly rattling, life is at least as messy as it is funny.

*BEHIND THE SCENES: Knowing that the chemistry between her stars would make or break Love and War, English took no chances while auditioning Dey and Thomas. ”Jay adored her right away—after she left the room, he went, ‘Ooooh, her,”’ English says. ”But we had them read together three times to make sure it was real.” Some viewers may find it too real; Love and War‘s pilot includes an eyebrow-raising discussion of condoms. ”We’ve earned the right by handling subjects (on Murphy Brown) intelligently,” English says. ”We’re not out to shock.”
*CHANCE OF SURVIVAL: TV insiders pick Love, aided by a hot time slot, as the season’s one sure smash; if it doesn’t hit the top 20 instantly, something’s wrong.