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.
Here are early winners and losers:
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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's "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.
"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."
"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."
NBC. 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 of NBC's 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.