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NEW CBS SERIES `MIDDLE AGES' LIGHTENS UP

In the first few minutes of the new CBS series "Middle Ages," the lead character has a dream about nuclear war and a long-lost friend, dead from a LSD overdose decades earlier.

There's a corporate takeover that leads to the firing of a 60-year-old employee. A 40-year-old man suffers a heart attack. And there is lots of angst about reaching middle age without having accomplished the goals of youth.All this in a series that's supposed to be funny.

And, after watching the first episode, one television critic wondered about these characters who "don't seem to have any joy in their lives."

"Holy cow!" exclaimed executive producer Stan Rogow. "Well, I think they do. Initially in the first episode I was really introducing the characters, introducing their circumstances. And I think that the show is intended to be quite humorous."

Star Peter Riegert came close to blowing a gasket at the suggestion that "Middle Ages" is somewhat dark and depressing.

"I can't believe this! It's an hour of time," he said. "Is that what you deduce from this, that these people are miserable? It's just one hour. . . . Take it easy. Did you ever have a bad day in your life? . . . This happens to be one story."

All of which may well explain why CBS is airing the first two episodes of "Middle Ages" back-to-back tonight beginning at 8 p.m. on Ch. 5 and calling it the two-hour premiere.

Because that first hour is dark and almost dreary at times, with flashes of deadpan humor. But the second hour shows more evidence of the lightness and humor Rogow insisted was there.

Riegert stars as Walter Cooper, a salesman of about 40 whose job appears to be in jeopardy and whose life hasn't turned out the way he wanted. Of course, as his wife, Cindy (Ashley Crow) points out, neither has her life.

Walter's best friends are: Ron Steffey (Michael O'Keefe), a very successful public relations executive; and Terry Hannon (William Russ), a successful businessman who really wants to be the lead guitarist in a rock band.

Although the show is titled "Middle Ages," the cast includes characters in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. As a matter of fact, 60-year-old Dave Nelson (James Gammon) steals the show as Walter's father-in-law, the man who's fired in the corporate takeover.

As a 30-year participant in the rat race, Dave's point of view on the situation is priceless. (And don't worry about Dave - things turn out fine for him.)

Despite its temporary status (after tonight's debut, it will air the following four Thursdays at 9 p.m.), there is much to recommend "Middle Ages" - most notably the writing, which is intelligent and insightful and wryly funny. (There are no big laughs here, just ironic humor.)

"It's sort of the ironies of life that we're confronting," Rogow said. "And I think that really is the intent of the show, to deal with dilemmas that really touch everybody at different ages, and hopefully create a show that is going to touch people and viewers . . . The specific intent is to do it with humor. So, hopefully as you guys see more of the show, you'll begin to sense that. This is not an angst-ridden kind of endeavor."

It is worth it to stay with "Middle Ages" for the entire two hours tonight. Just don't trouble yourself too much about the troubles that pile up in the first hour.