Military investigators, nerdy teens and a former "Friend" are among the winners in a season that stepped back from the brink.
The most mind-boggling aspect of the still-fresh TV season isn't that witches have returned to Eastwick or that the planet got a sneak peek at the apocalypse. It's that, for the first time in years, network executives can step away from the ledge.
Ratings are up 2 percent after falling for several seasons. I'm not suggesting the suits break open 11,000 bottles of champagne, but there is plenty of cause to pop a can of ginger ale. Freshman shows have reinvigorated a medium that once seemed headed the way of the typewriter, or Amy Winehouse's career. Here are the early winners and losers:WINNERS
The "NCIS" franchise. What does NCIS stand for? Try "Nothing Compares in Standings." The long-running drama draws more than 20 million viewers a week, a staggering number that should make even stoic Mark Harmon do the jig. Its power has now extended to "NCIS: Los Angeles," by far the hottest new show of the season, as well as another new CBS series that follows these two on Tuesday nights: "The Good Wife," a solid hit that's already been picked up for a full season.
Sitcoms. It's not just that Americans are laughing again. It's that they're laughing at the right stuff. CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" is finally getting a big hand, becoming the most popular sitcom among ages 18-49 and 25-54. ABC's risky move to program four spankin' new sitcoms on Wednesday night has paid off handsomely with nearly 10 million viewers a week recognizing that "Modern Family" is a gem and that the Courteney Cox vehicle "Cougar Town" is getting better each week. The only sore spot is "Hank," a sitcom so desperate for laughs that you worry about Kelsey Grammer maybe pulling a muscle.
"Glee." Pulling down 7.5 million viewers a week might not sound impressive, but when it's a grown-up version of "High School Musical," it's a minor miracle. Fox's singing-and-dancing dramedy has gained such a cult following that it's scoring iTunes hits and the cover of Entertainment Weekly. The real scary thing: It hasn't peaked. Episodes keep getting stronger and, come January, its lead-in will be the 10,000-pound gorilla named "American Idol." Everybody dance now!
"FlashForward." The cold fact that "Lost" will end its sixth season next year just got a little easier to bear. That's because ABC seems to have found a suitable replacement for sci-fi fans more interested in characters than special effects. Of course, there's no guarantee that the early accolades will equal long-range success. Just ask the once-unsinkable "Heroes."
David Letterman. The veteran talk-show host didn't need big-name guests or stupid human tricks to take over the late-night wars. Instead, the late-night star has surpassed Conan O'Brien's "Tonight Show" with top-notch material and celebrity "battles." His producers should send a bouquet of flowers to Sarah Palin every week.LOSERS
David Letterman. Of course, Letterman's ratings have also been helped by a scandal that, in the long run, could do more harm than good. The host's on-air confession of backstage affairs has tongues wagging and CBS executives trembling. Yes, it has attracted curious eyeballs, but if Letterman turns out to be a complete wolf, viewers may no longer want to go to bed with him.
NBC. At least Letterman can be comforted by the fact that he's no longer under the Peacock's wing. The network might as well adopt Murphy's Law as its motto. Most predicted that the "The Jay Leno Show" was just a cork to hold the waters back, but the dismal showing of almost all its new programs, and the fact that only critics seem to be impressed with its Thursday-night comedy lineup, is fueling an unstoppable flood.
Medical dramas. "Mercy," "Three Rivers" and "Trauma" were all supposed to be part of the genre's revival. Instead, all three are on life support. I'm still betting that "Mercy" can eventually find a faster pulse -- and a larger audience -- but the other two series had better have hospice on speed-dial.
Minorities. The Screen Actors Guild recently reported that diversity is down in network television. Duh. The only new network show to heavily feature blacks is Fox's "Brothers," an absolutely horrid attempt at a sitcom. And onetime beauty "Ugly Betty" has been shuffled off to Friday, where it's dying a slow, painful death. Sure, Fox's "The Cleveland Show" is doing reasonably well, even building on its "Simpsons" lead-in, but when a white guy doing an impression of an obese black man is your shining example of success, you have a serious problem.
CW. The network that once embraced goofy reality series and urban sitcoms now seems only interested in young women. If only they knew what that demographic wanted. Yes, yes, they adore bloodsuckers, which is why "The Vampire Diaries" is top-rated on Thursdays among female teens, but "Melrose Place" might as well be face-down in the swimming pool with Sydney (the network is retooling -- fast) and "The Beautiful Life" was canceled after just two episodes. If only it had featured a singin' and dancin' vampire.
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