Despite the fact that the writers have walked away from their keyboards, leaving us with repeats, reality and rejects, it’s still time take a look back at what the networks delivered this past year. Some moments were great (the “Lost” finale), others barely tolerable (season two of “Heroes”). And then there was Sanjaya.
Geek chic — “Reaper,” “Chuck,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Aliens in America” — was all the rage this fall, and those shows delivered on what they promised, even if they proved to be a bit too much of the same thing. While the networks were able to feed us plenty emotional and developmentally starved 20-somethings, they couldn’t give us hits.
Unlike 2006, when “Heroes” and “Ugly Betty” came out of the gate like gangbusters and stayed strong throughout, no new show grabbed us by the throat and demanded our attention. Come to think of it, the most mesmerizing moment of the entire year was a completely dark screen, with everyone wondering whether Tony Soprano had finally eaten his last onion ring.
Grade: B+Highlights: ABC produced more new hits than any network. “Pushing Daisies” was the buzz show coming out of the fall, and has kept up its early promise. Christina Applegate-starrer “Samantha Who?” is no longer a question mark. The answer is, yes, people will watch a mediocre show if it’s got a cute female telling the jokes. Despite idiotic chatter from fans who felt the story wasn’t moving fast enough or that main characters were being left in the cold, the aforementioned “Lost” (which starts up again Jan. 31) continues to be riveting. With B-list celebs and retired athletes doing the tango, “Dancing With the Stars” remains the second most popular reality hit. “Dirty Sexy Money” feels schizophrenic — love the Peter Krause storyline, yet the annoying twins can’t be gone fast enough — but decent ratings indicate it’ll be here awhile.
At times, “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Private Practice” fueled those who believe Southern Californians are like cereal — nothing but nuts and flakes — but the show found enough “Grey’s Anatomy” fans to tune in. And speaking of “Grey’s”: On occasion, the docs at Seattle Grace Hospital can still exude some touching moments. On the flip side, even Katherine Heigl agrees: Gizzie must die.
Lowlights: Shocking that “Cavemen” didn’t turn out to be a hit. Shocking, indeed, that a show based on an insurance commercial isn’t the next “Seinfeld”! Not even “The Practice” star Dylan McDermott could save “Big Shots.”
Breakout star: Lee Pace, “Pushing Daisies.” His lighthearted and easy-to-please personality fit perfectly with “Daisies” whimsical nature.
Grade: B-Highlights: “The Big Bang Theory” is the funniest sitcom to launch in years. Johnny Galecki and newcomer Jim Parsons are so in sync and so good, it feels like they’ve honed their act for years, and even the supporting nerds are great. In a timeslot right after “How I Met Your Mother,” which might’ve started the season a bit slowly creatively but has picked up nicely, Monday night at CBS remains TV comfort food. “CSI” investigators continue to solve cases as audiences are having no fill of the whodunit.
Breakout star: Johnny Galecki, “The Big Bang Theory.” After a few seasons on “Roseanne” in the ’90s, Galecki isn’t a newcomer by any means. However, he’s a fresh face for a younger generation of viewers, and on “Big Bang” his charm is apparent. His character is the only one that can have a conversation about astrophysics while, at the same time, coherently talk to a beautiful girl without sounding like a complete dork.
Highlights: Oh, something we’ll call “American Idol.” Sure, the reality juggernaut had a musical off year (or would that be off key?) with a final 12 contestants whose electricity and excitement didn’t match those stars from seasons past, but the ratings remained dominant. “House” gave us new doctors to choose from and that helped refresh a sometime stale storyline — ill patient, bad diagnosis, even worse diagnosis that almost kills ill patient, radical treatment, patient survives. Sure, they still followed that prescription a few times but the good doctor had new wannabe Houses to pick on. Numbers for “Back to You,” with Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, haven’t been as high as Fox would’ve hoped, but we’ll still give it a thumbs up because it still manages to make us laugh, even though we sometimes see the jokes coming a mile away.
Lowlights: Cop drama “K-Ville” brought us the current plight of New Orleans. Much like the Bush Administration’s attitude after Hurricane Katrina, not many bothered to see what was going on down there, despite some nice work from Anthony Anderson. Adrenaline-charged “24,” which for years made us believe that Jack Bauer could stop any domestic attack, fell victim to its own press and followed with a lackluster season. After winning an Emmy for best series in September 2006, writers upped the ante with more torture, and more moles, and viewers finally figured out that there’s only so many evildoers working in the White House and what Jack really needs is a good night’s sleep.
Breakout star: Wayne Brady, “Don’t Forget the Lyrics.” A host can make or break a reality show — I doubt “American Idol” would be as popular without Ryan Seacrest, and it’s obvious Regis Philbin’s professionalism played a huge part in the success of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” — and a singing and dancing Brady kept contestants relaxed and focused on winning.
Grade: C-Highlights: Long the home of quality programming that too few people are watching, NBC has the goods but can’t get the word out. The Emmys gave the network a free publicity campaign when it tabbed “30 Rock” as the year’s best comedy, and deservedly so. And where doing nothing is doing best, NBC had the smarts not to cancel “Friday Night Lights,” which might be the best decisions the suits have made in a while. The move to, er, Fridays seems to have helped the folks from Dillon. “Life” might just be the networks’ latest pet project in that it’s the best new show on TV that nobody’s watching. Maybe it’s something in the water over there; British actor Damian Lewis and fellow Brit Hugh Laurie shine when they trade in their English accents.
Lowlights: Despite a massive promotional campaign, “Bionic Woman” failed to ignite. Lesson learned: Sometimes when you have an iconic series, you just leave it alone. “Journeyman,” despite nice work from star Kevin McKidd, is traveling to the land of one season and out. In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately category, “Heroes” continues to sputter creatively and has fans peeling off, which is a bitter pill for a network having an impossible time finding a signature hit.
Breakout star: Damian Lewis, “Life.” American audiences first got introduced to Lewis in HBO’s miniseries “Band of Brothers” and “Life” gives him an opportunity to be suave, strong and a guy who you want to see get his revenge.
(MSNBC is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
HBO: BSaying goodbye to “The Sopranos” wasn’t easy, and HBO doesn’t dominate the competition like it used to. If quality was the only barometer of success, “The Wire” (which begins its fifth and final season on Jan. 6) would not only win the Emmy every year but bring the most eyeballs. Sadly, neither is true. “Flight of the Conchords” was a niche hit, but niche doesn’t pay the bills. Sexually explicit “Tell Me You Love Me” brought us into the inner sanctums of crumbling relationships. Some viewers enjoyed peeking into these characters’ bedrooms, others didn’t want to watch so much despair.
Showtime: AOnce pay cable’s ugly stepchild, Showtime is delivering both a larger viewing base and series that are receiving critical acclaim. The Golden Globes nominated David Duchovny’s half-hour “Californication” as best comedy while “The Tudors” earned a best drama spot. Michael C. Hall is up for the second year in a row for “Dexter,” which has a loyal following. And for the best show that nobody’s ever heard of, much less not watching, “Brotherhood” has fans who say its inside look at Providence, R.I., politics is as good as “The Sopranos.”
FX: BGlenn Close and Ted Danson made for two of the most twisted characters all last year in “Damages,” which got more Golden Globe nominations than any other series. Danson, especially, as a corporate mogul who swindled millions from his employers, finally put traded his happy-go-lucky “Cheers” persona for some much-needed nastiness. “The Riches” had its moments, while the mediocre but renewed “Dirt” had the feel of a program desperate for attention, quality be damned. Now, give us the last season of “The Shield!”
Stuart Levine is a managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at .