Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator of Designing Women, has made good on her stated promise to bring some mature sexiness to prime-time with her new effort, Evening Shade. A big cast fills a small town in this Southern sitcom. Burt Reynolds stars as Wood Newton, a former pro footballer who has returned to Evening Shade, Ark., to coach the high-school team. Marilu Henner (Taxi) is his wife, Ava (they have three sitcom-standard children). Hal Holbrook is Ava's dad, and Elizabeth Ashley is Ava's aunt. Charles Durning and Ossie Davis have fun rolling Southern syllables around in their mouths as the town's doctor and rib-joint owner, respectively. Michael Jeter, who won a Tony earlier this year for Grand Hotel, has turned himself into a Don Knotts for the '90s as Wood's jittery assistant coach.
As Wood, Reynolds continues the career rehabilitation he began last year with the film Breaking In. He has shaken off the funk he seemed to be in through most of the '80s; in Evening Shade he's happy and alert even when maintaining a strict expression. Although the large cast hasn't allowed anyone much screen time so far, Reynolds and Henner have already developed a nice romantic rapport, while Ashley has already become a tiresome over-actor. She probably intends her character to be a pumped-up version of a Tennessee Williams heroine, but she's coming across like a scaled-down version of Delta Burke.
The show strains somewhat to make the Old South meet the New, to force confrontations between the generations. Holbrook tells his grandchildren it's all right to eat lots of sugar: ''Sugar,'' he says decisively, ''will propel ya''; the kids think Grandpa's a little nuts. Davis feels he's keeping up with the times by taking Fats Domino off his jukebox and replacing him with the 2 Live Crew. To be a good joke, this would have to be minimally believable, but ''Me So Horny'' in a small-town restaurant jukebox? Fat chance.
With actors this interesting and writing this vivid, however, it's likely that Evening Shade will settle down and become as dependable a piece of entertainment as anything on television. B+