Ken Tucker
February 18, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

In 1945, the critic Edmund Wilson wrote that the ”reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.” Well, since smoking has proven to cause more than minor harm, we might update Wilson’s observation to say that the watching of television detective stories is a vice whose silliness and harm rank somewhere between crossword puzzles and a lobotomy. Today’s TV mysteries-suddenly numerous and self-consciously old-fashioned-vary in quality every bit as much as they did in the era of the Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen stories Wilson had in mind. But given contemporary television demographics, they also appeal to an audience older, and therefore more bookish, than your average Melrose Place devotee. This sort of programming doesn’t receive much media coverage because it doesn’t showcase young, up-and-coming stars. Instead, shows such as hart to hart: home is where the hart is (NBC, Feb. 18, 9-11 p.m.) and burke’s law (CBS, Fridays, 9-10 p.m.; preempted by the Olympics until March 4) strive for the sort of steady, nearly anonymous success of series like Murder, She Wrote and Matlock: cozy mystery hours built around familiar actors following the same dramatic formula every time out. The Hart to Hart entry, for example, is the second TV-movie revival of the popular 1979-84 mystery series starring Stefanie Powers and Robert Wagner. As millionaire sleuths Jennifer and Jonathan Hart, Powers and Wagner still make a glossily attractive couple; the first glimpse we have of them in Home Is Where the Hart Is, they’re lolling around in a bubbling hot tub making mildly smutty jokes. Soon, pink-cheeked and designer-attired, Hart and Hart are off to figure out who killed a former teacher of Jennifer’s (she’s played by Maureen O’Sullivan in a brief cameo). Home Is Where the Hart Is harks back to the pre-Miami Vice era of mystery shows, before MTV-speeded pacing became de rigueur; there’s a leisureliness to the unfolding of Home’s small plot that permits Jennifer to look around the small-town murder site and murmur, ”Fishing used to be the life’s blood of this place; sometimes I used to come down here early in the morning and watch the fishermen with their nets.” There’s no point to her reverie, just as there’s not much point in following the languid twists of writer Lawrence Hertzog’s teleplay-Hart to Hart fans tune in to see how great these middle- aged actors still look, to listen to their warm voices and admire their creaseless clothes. That’s also the likely reason the January premiere of Burke’s Law reintroduced our hero, gajillionaire police chief Amos Burke (Gene Barry), while he was being fitted for a new suit. The subtext of both Hart and Burke’s is that having a lot of moola enables one to cultivate the life of the mind and therefore to be able to solve crimes better than your average cop on the beat-this is a detective-fiction notion at least as old as Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin stories. In the case of Burke’s Law, the updating of the 1963-66 series, it means that Burke still cruises Los Angeles crime scenes in a gold-and-black Rolls Royce, but these days he’s assisted by his homicide-detective son, Peter (Peter Barton), who tools around L.A. in a Jeep. (This is the sort of show that tries to communicate Peter’s hipness by having him listen to George Thorogood on his car radio.) Burke’s Law offers the usual structure-a murder is committed at the top of the show; Burke saunters around interviewing suspects played by a bevy of guest stars. And in this case, they’re, um, vintage guest stars: Recent shows have included appearances by Polly Bergen, Jack Carter, and Anne Francis. Silver-haired and fragile-looking, Barry is still craggily debonair; Barton is a bland hunk to the manner (and Burke’s manor) born. You never know when this hoary genre is going to yield something good, though. Who’d have thought, for example, that Bill Cosby-for the past few years an intensely mannered performer-would find another vehicle for his talent? Yet he seems to have done so with the cosby mysteries (NBC), which premiered Jan. 31, with three more installments to follow and the promise of a regular series if the ratings are good. As forensic expert Guy Hanks, Cosby trades on comic wiliness to solve cleverly clued puzzles. The star is abetted by smart writers like David Black (Law & Order) and William Link (Columbo). It’s no revolution in TV mysteries-Hanks is yet another amateur sleuth, independently wealthy-but it sure beats crossword puzzles and lobotomies. Hart to Hart: Home Is Where the Hart Is: C Burke’s Law: C+ The Cosby Mysteries:B

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