The two most talked-about characters on television in 1990 were a cartoon and a dead girl.

And often staid, predictable PBS caught the public's imagination by going to war.That's sort of indicative of the kind of year it was.

Bart Simpson and his animated family took the country by storm, lifting Fox to its highest ratings ever. After "The Simpsons" zoomed into the Top 10 on Sunday nights, Fox moved the cartoon clan to Thursdays to take on king-of-the-TV-hill Bill Cosby in the most publicized battle of the year.

"The Cosby Show" has been winning the ratings battle, but "The Simpsons" may be winning the war. Not only is the animated series putting a serious dent in "Cosby's" ratings, but it is attracting the younger audience advertiser covet.

Over at ABC, everyone was asking "Who killed Laura Palmer?" The prom queen's body was discovered as the off-beat "Twin Peaks" debuted, but that didn't stop millions of viewers from puzzling over the mystery.

The only problem was, the mystery dragged on so long a lot of those viewers had tuned out by the time it was revealed that Laura's father, Leland - who was possessed by an evil spirit named Bob - was the murderer.

Meanwhile, PBS achieved a high mark with "The Civil War," its first miniseries. The historical epic won rave reviews and big (for PBS) ratings.

In a era when the major networks were watching their audience steadily shrink (ABC, CBS and NBC now attract less than two-thirds of the total viewership), the success of "The Simpsons" and "Twin Peaks" led to a number of new innovations - most of which flopped badly.

Perhaps the most ambitious was Steven Bochco's "Cop Rock" on ABC. A combination of a tough, gritty police show and a Broadway musical, Americans ignored the series and it disappeared at year's end.

But it wasn't alone. The Big Three networks and Fox premiered more than 30 shows in the fall, only one ("America's Funniest People") made the Nielsen Top 30.

As a matter of fact, the only break-out hits of 1990 came in the first months of the year. In addition to "The Simpsons," Fox came up with the wildly irreverent "In Living Color." Keenan Ivory Wayans produces and stars in this often risque sendup of everything from home boys to Siskel & Ebert.

Even ABC was surprised when "America's Funniest Home Videos" turned into a monster hit. Despite weak writing and inept host Bob Saget, Americans loved those home videos. And, beginning in the fall, they even hung around in enough numbers to lift the awful "Funniest People" into the Top 10.

Perhaps the best new series of the year, "Northern Exposure" wasn't even a midseason replacement. It was a relatively low-budget summer show about a young, Jewish, New York doctor obligated to practice in a small Alaskan town. A collection of wonderful characters, not scripted jokes or screaming action, made it one of the most charming shows in years.

It didn't make CBS' fall schedule, but will return early in 1991.

Meanwhile, a number of new, quality programs failed - including "Elvis," "Parenthood" and "Working It Out" - and some excellent returning shows bit the dust, most notably "China Beach."

Comedy was still king on the networks, but legal eagles took a close second. In addition to the long-running "L.A. Law," lawyers popped up in "Against the Law," "Equal Justice," "Law & Order," "Shannon's Deal" and "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill."

But America's favorite programs remain some of the older shows on TV. "Cheers," now in its ninth season, was the most popular program on the air. Other oldies like "The Cosby Show," "Designing Women," "A Different World," "Empty Nest," "The Golden Girls," "Murder, She Wrote" and "60 Minutes" regularly sat at the top of the ratings heap.

"Roseanne" remained a Top 10 show throughout the year, although the ratings slipped somewhat in the fall - coincidentally or not, after Barr massacred the national anthem.

"The Civil War" wasn't PBS' only long-form programming in 1990. The Metropolitan Opera's version of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle was presented in its entirety over four consecutive nights.

And there were a couple of good miniseries on the commercial networks - although miniseries have shrunk to two nights, three nights at the most. CBS' "Family of Spies" told the story of navy officer John Walker Jr., who sold military secrets to the Soviets, and ABC told the tale of a different American Family in "The Kennedys of Masschussets."

Among the year's excellent made-for-TV movies were Stephanie Zimbalist in "Caroline?," Barbara Hershey in "A Killing in a Small Town," Walter Mathau in "The Incident" and James Garner in "Decoration Day."

Carol Burnett made a television comeback in "Carol & Co." And Burt Reynolds made a quick comeback after his "B.L. Stryker" (a spoke in ABC's "Mystery Movie" wheel) died, he signed to star in the CBS sitcom "Evening Shade."

Other TV veterans were less successful in duplicating past success - Jane Curtin ("Working It Out"), Robert Urich and Carol Kane ("American Dreamer") and Audrey Meadows ("Uncle Buck").

A number of television legends left us this year - CBS founder William Paley, anchorman Douglas Edwards, "Our Miss Brooks" star Eve Arden and "Big Valley" star Barbara Stanwyk.

And a bit of TV magic died with Muppet creator Jim Henson's untimely passing.

Locally, Mark Eubank left Ch. 2 and Terry Wood returned. Longtime weatherman Eubank signed with rival Ch. 5, but his contract mandated he spend a year in television limbo. His KSL debut comes Jan. 1.

And after months of speculation, former KUTV anchorman Wood returned to Salt Lake City in October. The sometimes controversial newsman immediately boosted KUTV to better ratings in the November sweeps period.

Over at Ch. 5, longtime news director Spence Kinard resigned amid allegations and innuendo. And Ch. 2's news director, Dan Webster, also resigned. The official reason - to take a job with the Associated Press. The unofficial reason - he'd worn out his welcome at KUTV.

There were layoffs at Ch. 2, including lontime reporter Chris Vanocur, who jumped to Ch. 4.

Fox completed its purchase of KSTU-Ch. 13, and that station took great strides in the ratings race. KTVX-Ch. 4 remained the most-watched station from sign-on to sign-off, and KUTV-Ch. 2 and KSL-Ch. 5 both saw their ratings dip.