Here's where the TV season gets interesting. It used to be that the networks rolled out all their new shows in the fall and then just sat back and waited for the big ratings to come in. When some new series or other didn't do very well, the programmers would just look around and shove in one they'd rejected earlier.
Not anymore. Mid-season is now the time when the television industry not just the networks, but PBS and cable as well does its darnedest to liven things up, to woo back viewers disenchanted with the fall offerings; it's the time when television takes its biggest creative chances.
The second season, with its go-for-broke risks and its shrewd fine-tuning, has thus become as important as the one in the fall, and sometimes livelier. Articulating the current approach, ABC entertainment president Robert Iger says, ''In mid-season, you can discover where your needs are, where your opportunities are, what are the best shows you really have.'' The big winners of recent mid-seasons include The Wonder Years, Twin Peaks, The Simpsons in short, some of TV's most interesting programming.
What will be the breakthrough shows this time around? Family Dog? Davis Rules? Make your educated guess after reading Entertainment Weekly's guide to TV's newest hopefuls.
NBC is still No. 1, but its margin of victory isn't what it used to be. Recent decisions by the new entertainment chief, Warren Littlefield, suggest that the peacock network won't contin- ue its tradition of waiting patiently for promising new series to build audiences. This winter, Littlefield axed the acclaimed Parenthood and Working It Out, while the abysmal Fanelli Boys won a mysterious reprieve. So, while NBC tries to repair its erratic laugh meter, its second-season lineup will look to a brooding vampire, four squabbling sisters, and a pair of crusading journalists to bring back ratings glory.
Real Life with Jane Pauley and Exposé
(Sundays, 8-8:30 p.m.) and (Sundays, 8:30-9 p.m.)
NBC could package these two shows under an umbrella title: The Sunday-Night Suicide Hour. Tossed, kamikaze-like, into the schedule to provide an , alternative to ABC's two funny-video numbers, Real Life and Exposé are news shows defined only by their opening credits. Pauley's collection of banal feel-good vignettes has a funky theme, as though James Taylor had been crossed with thirtysomething soundtrack music; Tom Brokaw anchors Exposé, and it's a riot to see the Boy Scout-square newsman showcased by slash-and-burn graphics and a punk-rock theme. As for the hypey title, come on: Does NBC News expect people to believe that Brokaw and the investigative team of Brian Ross and Ira Silverman will break major news in a half-hour every week? So far, the exposés have been little more than sensationalized stories that would get five minutes (if that) at the end of NBC Nightly News.
Surprisingly, the initial ratings for Exposé have been higher than those for Pauley, though neither show has done impressively. But NBC, still smarting from a string of Sunday-night programming disasters, will probably stick with both for a while; Pauley reportedly has a one-year commitment.
(Fridays, 9-10 p.m.)
With Anne Rice and Stephen King high on the best-seller lists, NBC figured the country was ready for a bloodier, updated version of the gothic soap opera about a very moody vampire. But CBS attracted little more than a rabid cult for its gothic soap, Beauty and the Beast, whose failure suggests that people who like this sort of thing prefer it tucked in a book. Melodramatic romance splashed across a TV screen is, perhaps, a bit too public. But NBC may have been surprised by the audience for its show's premiere. The network assumed Dark Shadows' popularity would be mostly among young women, but the neck- nipping misdeeds of Barnabas Collins (Ben Cross) proved more alluring to 18- to 49-year-old men: more of them watched the Jan. 13 opener than any other drama series that week. With a fan club like that, Barnabas may have many more human snacks in his future.
(Mondays, 8:30-9 p.m.)
Mayim Bialik (Beaches) is that TV rarity: a likable, intelligent teenager. Now if only the scripts and her supporting cast were up to her standards. As it is, she must carry this trite sitcom about a single dad (Ted Wass) and lunk-headed brothers (Joey Lawrence, Michael Stoyanov) all by herself. Note, however, that if the show's initially respectable ratings portend a hit, there may be a Fonzie-like star in the making here: Blossom's best bud, a wiseacre girl named Six (Jenna Von Oy).
(Wednesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.)
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld offered a nice surprise late last season, starring in a replacement sitcom with a simple premise (Jerry as a bachelor stand-up comic) and lots of low-key, funny lines. His supporting cast Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Jerry's best friends is terrific. In the second go-round for Seinfeld, the star seems more relaxed and confident, and there's a bracing snap to the byplay between him and his costars. This could be the high-quality sleeper of the second season.
(Sundays, 7-8 p.m.)
This is at once the second season's most unusual and most banal premise: Each week, with Carl Reiner as your host, NBC plans to show highlights from its previous week's programming. In other words, at a loss as to how to compete with the seemingly unbeatable 60 Minutes, NBC is using an instant rerun. (Oh, yes: There'll be comic segments from Merrill Markoe and Harry Shearer, and Linda Ellerbee will have yet another opportunity to sell her patented so-it- goes whimsy to a skeptical public.) There's only one way this show will do well: if NBC shapes it as an in-house version of America's Funniest People, rerunning the network's dumbest mistakes and most flagrant banalities over the preceding seven days. Suggested segments: Today show intros flubbed by Joe Garagiola; Gary Cole's lugubrious radio monologues on Midnight Caller sped up to make his voice sound like Donald Duck's; the latest casting call for Fred Dryer's umpteenth new female costar on Hunter.
Here's a show that deserves its second chance. Shannon's Deal, about a scrappy Philadelphia lawyer played by Jamey Sheridan, was often uneven in its first run last year, but Sheridan was consistently sharp, as was his charming costar, Elizabeth Pena. The show was created by feature filmmaker John Sayles (Matewan, Eight Men Out), and NBC is touting the fact that some big-name talent has been lined up to write new episodes, including Tom Rickman (Coal Miner's Daughter), Joan Tewkesbury (Nashville), and Kit Carson (Paris, Texas). This could either give Shannon the edge it needs or turn it into an exercise in literary slumming.
NBC's stab at an hour-long yuppie ensemble drama is made authentic by the presence of thirtysomething's Patricia Kalember, who plays one of four adult siblings whose lives in New York are the heart of the series. The rest of the cast is just as noteworthy: Tony winner Swoosie Kurtz (House of Blue Leaves), Nothing in Common's Sela Ward, and Julianne Phillips. Each episode begins with an eye-catching steam-bath scene, and, verbally, the women let it all hang out episode one is set to open with a discussion of multiple orgasms. Last month, the scene was shown to journalists, igniting the season's shortest and silliest controversy when NBC's Littlefield joked to irate bluenoses that "corporately, we believe in orgasms." After much harrumphing from the press, he promised to review the scene's suitability.
The Disney Hour
In different forms and on different networks, Walt Disney family hours have had a home on television for more than 30 years. This still-undefined return of the company's signature series represents NBC's hope that the Disney name can still draw kids and their parents. The show's title is slightly misleading, since each hour will actually be composed of two half-hour series; among the producers preparing pilots are Stephen J. Cannell (Wiseguy), William Blinn (Brian's Song), and Patrick Hasburgh (21 Jump Street). NBC has promised that the series will receive a full 22-week run.
Last season, NBC gave a trial run to this comedy series about a harried urban wage-earner (Decoration Day's Judith Ivey) who forgoes big-city life to help save her family's cafe and bait shop in a small Texas town called Hadley Cove. Ratings were decent, and this spring the series gets another chance a credit to the network's faith in the star and its eagerness to please Down Home's executive producer, Cheers star Ted Danson.
A FACE TO WATCH: Julianne Phillips, Sisters When Julianne Phillips was cast as Frankie, the workaholic baby of the family in NBC's ensemble drama Sisters, she lunged for the role, then reeled back. ''I was thrilled, but please!'' she admits. ''My credits are nothing. And to walk onto the set and act with Swoosie Kurtz I walked around with a chin strap.'' Best known for the unwanted tabloid glare she received as Bruce Springsteen's ex and for a string of ornamental movie roles (Fletch Lives, Skin Deep), the 30-year-old's new assignment is anything but decorative: ''I play a slightly anal-retentive career woman who can only express her feelings in numbers.'' Phillips calls the steam-bath scenes that open each episode ''a good way to hear women talking,'' but has one warning: ''People looking for thrills shouldn't bother. We discuss orgasms. We don't physicalize them.''
A FACE TO WATCH: Richard Edson, Shannon's Deal
You might say Richard Edson's got a nose for a good part: What he calls his ''bunch-of-times-broken'' schnoz is just right for his role on Shannon's Deal. Edson plays boxer-turned-loan collector Wilmer Slade, a Runyonesque softy who's constantly trying to improve his vocabulary while squeezing payments from the eternally in-hock Shannon (a typical Wilmer utterance: ''Your mirthless japes fall on deaf ears today, Shannon''). Edson, 35, was a New York club musician who ''never thought for a second about being an actor'' until downtown friend and director Jim Jarmusch asked him to costar in the 1984 cult comedy Stranger Than Paradise. Like Wilmer, Edson has been learning impressively on the job ever since. Does he ever think about adjusting his busted beak? ''Nah, it's too much me,'' he says. ''But my grandmother does.''