New stars continue to outshine old in fall lineup

THE CROP OF NEW SERIES seems to prove, yet again, that television does a better job creating stars than recycling them.

Glancing at this fall’s lineup, the real standout performers are those who weren’t household names in August. Actors generating buzz both within and outside the industry include David Caruso of “NYPD Blue,””Lois & Clark’s” Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Bruce Campbell of “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” and Brett Butler of “Grace Under Fire.”

One tends to forget that Fox launched dramas like “21 Jump Street,””Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place” relying largely on attractive unknowns — a strategy that only began to look questionable last year when everybody introduced youth-oriented ensembles, packing so much young flesh into primetime that the airwaves started to look like a frat house.

There are, of course, successful new series featuring established stars, notably “Dave’s World” (Harry Anderson), “Frasier” (Kelsey Grammer), “Phenom” (Judith Light, William Devane), “The Sinbad Show” (Sinbad) and “Harts of the West” (Beau Bridges). All of those, however, were the beneficiaries of good time periods with established lead-ins, due largely to the cachet their star power provided.

As a result, the ability of big names to power new series becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, when the truth is that new shows built as star vehicles frequently wind up trapped in an actor’s persona and the audience’s preconceived notions of them.

Recent shows like “Dudley” (Dudley Moore), “Good Advice” (Shelley Long), “The Trouble With Larry” (Bronson Pinchot) and the latest Bob New-hart vehicle (“Bob”) all seemed to suffer in their slavish desire to present established performers in ways viewers have seen them before — from Pinchot’s wild-and-crazy guy, a la “Perfect Strangers,” to Long’s somewhat fastidious snob , donning the apron she hung up after leaving “Cheers” in 1987.

This, in part, is as it should be. A well-defined star playing against type simply to “branch out” can be awkward and annoying. Indeed, some actors realize the audience really won’t buy them reaching into a genre that ill suits them — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s parody of “Hamlet” in “Last Action Hero” providing a clever case in point, the movie’s ultimate fate notwithstanding.

The problem with crafting a show to a given star’s persona is that it tends to be creatively confining — unless that performer’s image lends itself directly to the project, such as Chuck Norris’ butt-kickin’ lawman in “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

Lost in the shuffle is that despite its frequent inferiority complex vis-a-vis feature films, television is often at its best when leading rather than following. The list of movie stars who got started in TV goes on and on, and there’s something to be said for finding a Bruce Willis or Tom Hanks coming up the ladder instead of trying to piece together that perfect series vehicle on the back end or the way down.

Whatever the reasoning, for all the fanfare last spring about high “Q”-score monikers like Dunaway, Scheider or Rickles, the talk this fall surrounds names like Caruso, Cain and Campbell. That’s a lesson programmers seem to keep learning the hard way — blinded, perhaps, by the stars in their eyes.

GOIN’ “SOUTH”… WITH A BULLET: CBS has put its credibility at stake, in a manner with farther-reaching implications than refusing to admit there’s no Noah’s Ark, Santa Claus or Easter Bunny.

Of greater importance from a business perspective is the way in which the network is taxing the patience of the creative community with short new series orders and what’s perceived as a twitchy trigger finger in blowing shows away.

A new record in the latter regard may have been set with “South of Sunset,” the Paramount hour starring Glenn Frey. The series reportedly was canceled even before CBS received its national rating, based on overnight results from the first episode.

Granted, “Sunset” may have been destined to go south from the get-go, but in a broader sense suppliers are questioning CBS’ practice of simply throwing new series against tough time periods and hoping they stick — without even the benefit of a preview airing behind an established show.

BASED ON LAST WEEK, for example, TriStar’s “The Nanny” appears to have little chance as it heads into battle at 8:30 tonight behind “Hearts Afire,” which pulled just a 12 share last week. Granted, that performance came against a “Home Improvement” repeat, but it’s hard to imagine the show will improve substantially against weaker competition, and ABC will be airing “Improvement” there again next week.

The show’s rapid demise also may send the wrong message to talent heading into pilot season. For their part, the other nets are not-so-subtly trying to capitalize on the situation — playing good cop (“We believe in and nurture our new shows”) to CBS’ bad cop.

As the No. 1 network in households, CBS may weather the short-order strategy without any ill effects, though many think the web will have to consider a change in the policy next season. To paraphrase one of its short-lived stars, if it does cause the network any heartache, we’ll find out in the long run.

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