The breaking news in daytime talk shows is that there's a sudden scramble to duplicate the surprising success of the Ricki Lake show. Lake and her producers hit upon the ratings-busting idea of doing Oprah at a revved-up, MTV-style pace, thus attracting a younger demographic (i.e., teens who should be doing their homework!). The first Lake clone has been announced: Singer Carnie Wilson will have her own daytimer next year. (Does this mean there won't be any more Wilson Phillips albums?)
But until the airwaves become cluttered with 20-year-old hosts talking at a breathless clip to studio audiences of slack-jawed slackers, there's one last wave of old-fashioned, housewife-centric yak fests to check out namely, The Suzanne Somers Show, Marilu(Henner, that is), and the Susan Powter Show (all syndicated, check local listings).
Somers is also attempting something a little different in the structure of her show. She'll bring on a celebrity guest, chat chummily about the biz for a segment or two, and then introduce some Serious Topic of personal interest to the guest. An expert on The Topic joins them, and they solicit comments and questions from the studio audience. On a recent show, for instance, country singer Doug Stone moseyed in to talk about music and his recent quadruple bypass, which prompted Somers to bring in an authority on heart disease and let everyone chew that over for a while.
This is an interesting way to organize a talk show; it is also, in most cases, a pretty boring way. The celebrity sticks around to supply star power but rarely has anything particularly insightful to say about the Serious Topic; the experts, who tend to be dazzled by both Somers and the celebrity, rarely exude the authority they should.
Things are a lot looser over at Marilu's place. Perhaps this is because Henner herself may be looser than Somers. (In her new autobiography, By All Means Keep On Moving, Henner blithely confides that she bedded at least two Taxi men, Tony Danza and Judd Hirsch; no confirmation on Andy Kaufman, however.) She radiates genial, comforting frankness, which enabled her to do a recent show about breast-feeding and find a typical mom who was willing to demonstrate her technique on camera (the woman used her baby not Marilu). Henner can psychobabble and talk techno-jargon a bit too much (''So he wasn't nipple-confused anymore?''), but her nonthreatening, dirt-free show is likable, not bland.
Susan Powter recently launched her talk show with a war cry: ''Save the uterus!'' This was the theme of her debut, which proved quite aggressively why ads for the show say, ''It's about women. It's for women. And it's about time!'' The striking thing about Powter's show aside from the host's always-startling snow-white Gump cut is its willingness to take a stand on the issues it raises. The ''Save the uterus'' edition, for example, amounted to 30 minutes spent denouncing most hysterectomies as unnecessary, frequently suggesting that the operation is an example of medical sexism on the part of out-of- touch, mostly male doctors.
The impression I had formed of Powter based on her famous infomercial spiels that this was one loudmouth to steer way clear of has softened considerably. For one thing, it's now clear that Powter is smart and articulate. She also speaks forthrightly; when a woman on the panel said her hysterectomy left her feeling ''crazy,'' Powter said, ''Did you go to the doctor and say, 'Hey, I'm wackin' out here!'?''
Powter is one tough cookie. I'll bet that when Carnie Wilson enters the talk-show mud-wrestle for ratings, Powter will take her down handily. The Suzanne Somers Show: B- Marilu: B The Susan Powter Show: B+