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Popular star of `Rhoda' returns to the TV screen as `Valerie'

Valerie (NBC, Saturday, March 1, 8:30-9 p.m.; and thereafter Mondays, 8:30-9 p.m.) is a new series starring Valerie Harper, who originated the character Rhoda on the old ``Mary Tyler Moore Show'' which was spun off in the series ``Rhoda'' through 1978. Now, Valerie Harper is back in a comfortably charming series in the Cosby genre -- low-key, laid back, short on punch lines but long on true-to-life family humor. The laughs come from deep within the character of the players -- Valerie as the mother of three boys, one 16 and the others 12-year-old fraternal twins. The suburban Chicago family is often fatherless, as Dad is an airline pilot, and Valerie has to cope with the family on her own. She does it with delightfully uncertain determination and, most important, with love.

The first two episodes concern the eldest son and his dates. In the premi`ere, David (played with aggressive but lovable vulnerability by Jason Bateman) is interested in an older woman and finally takes Mom's advice to cool it; in the second episode he is ashamed to be seen in public with his plain girlfriend, and Mom helps him to appreciate her.

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Nothing spectacular, understand. Just a reasonably well-written, authentic 1980s situation comedy. It won't win awards for innovation; but, if future scripts add a bit more depth and breadth to the basic relationships, the Hogan family could turn out to be almost as delightful to share a half-hour with as, say, the Huxtables. A chat with Valerie Harper Los Angeles

Might this new ``Valerie'' be ``Rhoda'' 10 years after?

``It could be, except not enough years have gone by for her to have a 16-year-old son. But I think if Rhoda had learned to accept herself more, got her neuroses in tow, and met a terrific guy who really valued her, sure there'd be many elements that would be the same in this character. Valerie Hogan, like Rhoda, shoots from the hip, with her mouth.''

If Rhoda were a real character, where would she be today? ``Gee that's a nice question. I think she stayed in New York. Got married to a dentist, a wonderful husband who thinks she's the greatest thing in the world. She still tells him she's fat, she's still dieting and being silly. But it's wonderful. They have kids -- 7 and 9. Her mother, Ida, is in heaven, looking down and saying, `He's not a doctor, but an orthodontist is very good. At least the children will have perfect teeth.' ''

Valerie Harper today is slimmer than the Valerie Harper of ``Rhoda'' days, and she doesn't look a day older. She is married to a fitness expert. She is involved in many volunteer activities, especially the Hunger Project, which collects edible leftover foods from local supermarkets and distributes them to the poor.

According to Valerie, the character she plays in the new series is ``the real contemporary mid-'80s woman -- a homemaker, a mother, and a wage-earner.''

So, it is a feminist show?

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Valerie reacts very strongly to that pronouncement. ``Too many people have misinterpreted what `feminist' really means, what the feminist movement is about. It's about options and not being restricted and confined to a role that is not satisfying, that limits your humanity, that doesn't allow you to go your full distance in fulfilling who you are as a person.

``Valerie Hogan is not a career gal -- she doesn't have a high-blown career. Just a job she likes at which she earns some money. The trick will be for her to keep the job alive, take care of the kids properly, and not make it a return to the kitchen.''

Would ``The Cosby Show'' have the same success if Dr. Huxtable's wife were a homemaker instead of a lawyer?

``It wouldn't have the same timeliness and reality that it does. I think for that town house they live in to be maintained in Manhattan, they'd better have two enormous salaries. I think it's a wonderful image, not only for women, not only for women of color, but just in terms of family functioning. Without her successful career, I think a lot of people might have been put off by the show. Especially women.''

``My Valerie represents the vast majority of married women who are working to make money, to help support the family, to pay for the gymnastics classes, the Superman sheets, those extras.''

Valerie Harper doesn't get much of a chance to see her old friend Mary Tyler Moore, with whom she worked for so many years on ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show.'' But she considers her ``the greatest thing since sliced bread.''

Now that both of them have their own new shows and Betty White is doing ``Golden Girls,'' only Cloris Leachman of the ``Phyllis'' spinoff does not have a series.

``It was Mary, Rhoda, and Phyllis. Have you heard this one? Mary was what we wanted to be. Rhoda was who we probably were. And Phyllis was who we were afraid we might become.''

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