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Barbara Bel Geddes, matriarch of Dallas' Ewing clan, enters the front door at South Fork after a hard day of trying to hold her troubled TV family together. An uninvited guest is waiting for her in the living room. "Who are you?" demands Bel Geddes. "Why, I'm Miss Ellie," replies Donna Reed. A troubled look comes over Bel Geddes' face as the music swells to a cliff-hanger close. "But," she protests, "I'm Miss Ellie!"

The above scene will, in all likelihood, not appear in next week's episode of Dallas. Bel Geddes this fall reclaimed the role she originated (Reed replaced her last season when Bel Geddes withdrew for health reasons), and even TV soap operas generally observe a basic law of physics: two actors cannot occupy the same role at the same time. Still, one can never be too sure. Strange things happen when aging shows begin casting around for ways to keep viewers interested.

Consider some of the changes this fall. After killing off Bobby Ewing in a car accident last spring, Dallas has resurrected Mark Graison (John Beck), another ex-beau of Pamela Ewing (Victoria Principal), who supposedly went down in a fatal plane crash a couple of seasons ago. That other hardy band of TV survivalists, the Carringtons of Dynasty, emerged from last spring's terrorist machine-gun attack with hardly a scratch among them, and are now cloning a new series, Dynasty II: The Colbys. Over at Falcon Crest, Apollonia, the sexy rock singer and protégé of Prince, has joined the cast as a sexy rock singer and protégé of Lance Cumson. And, lo, some episodes of Hill Street Blues this season do not begin with the familiar morning roll call.

Keeping old shows fresh is a perennial challenge for network programmers. But their efforts have taken on more urgency this fall as a number of long-running hits have begun to sag in the ratings. Dynasty and Dallas, which finished one-two in last year's Nielsens, have slipped to the middle of the top-ten pack. Falcon Crest, another top-ten finisher last season, is now being beaten regularly by Miami Vice. The A-Team, last season's No. 6-ranked show, has dropped to 19th place, and Magnum, P.I., blitzed by competition from the new ratings champion, The Cosby Show, has fallen to a lowly 38th.

No show, of course, can remain a hit forever. But like a veteran fastball pitcher who extends his career by developing a knuckler, an aging series can prolong its life with a bit of timely tinkering. Some past hits, like M * A * S * H and All in the Family (which evolved into Archie Bunker's Place), stayed popular for years despite cast and format changes. On the other hand, "high concept" shows, which rely mainly on gimmicks or stunts (Mork and Mindy, for instance), seem to lose their appeal suddenly and irrevocably. The whole process may be accelerating, says Don Bellisario, executive producer of Magnum, P.I.: "The life of a show is getting shorter. Audiences are more sophisticated and have more options."

Stephen J. Cannell, co-executive producer of The A-Team, concedes that Mr. T and his teammates lost some of their edge last season: "I had the feeling last year that too many of the scripts were imitative of the show instead of being the show. It got a little too formulized." In an attempt to remedy that, Cannell (who also produces such shows as Riptide and Hardcastle & McCormick) is writing several scripts for the current season.

After five seasons as TV's most celebrated dramatic series, Hill Street Blues is sliding downhill in the ratings, and last spring lost its executive producer and several writers. Their successors considered major format changes to revitalize the show this season, but settled for relatively minor adjustments (adding a new character, Lieut. Norman Buntz, and kicking an old one, Ray Calletano, upstairs). With Captain Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) pursuing a police-corruption investigation and a flipped-out Rambo impersonator on the loose, the show seems to have recharged its creative batteries.

The tinkering on TV's prime-time soaps has had more mixed results. After what most fans considered an off year, Dallas has perked up considerably. Bel Geddes' return has provided some needed family solidity, and Sue Ellen Ewing (Linda Gray) plunged into an alcoholic binge in some unusually gritty scenes. Falcon Crest, by contrast, seems an increasingly tired mix of old plots (Angela Channing trying to break up Chase and Maggie's marriage again) and old faces (Morgan Fairchild joining the cast as an attorney). Meanwhile, Dynasty has resorted to the hoariest soap-opera gimmick in the repertoire: Linda Evans playing a dual role as Krystle Carrington's evil look-alike.

ABC is more concerned right now with the fate of another twin, Dynasty II: The Colbys. The spin-off, which will air on Thursday nights starting next week, revolves around yet another powerful business mogul (Charlton Heston) and his sister (Barbara Stanwyck). Two Dynasty cast members (John James and Emma Samms) are switching to the new show. According to Executive Producer Esther Shapiro, it will be filled with politics, love, greed and "a lot of environmental stuff." And if that is not a formula for instant success, well, bring on the tinkerers. --By Richard Zoglin. Reported by Cheryl Crooks/Los Angeles

With reporting by Reported by Cheryl Crooks/Los Angeles

 


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