Nets find their laff track

Frosh sitcoms bow with wow, but exex are still looking for the next watercooler hit

We now return you to TV’s regularly scheduled fall doldrums.

A year after “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” burst on the scene and became overnight sensations — a once-in-a-decade phenomenon — this season is looking a little more, well, average.

There are several skeins on the way to hitville (“My Name Is Earl”) and plenty more that have been brutally tossed aside (“Head Cases”). Some others have been early middle-of-the-road performers. But none have immediately hit the status of cultural phenomenon, and there hasn’t been an unusual number of failures, either.

“There are quite a few question marks remaining at this point,” says CBS scheduling topper Kelly Kahl.

There are also still plenty of somewhat surprising results coming out of the first few weeks of the season, giving the industry some early winners and losers:

WINNERS

New comedies

Viewers are finding something to laugh about again — at least when it comes to frosh sitcoms.

That’s an encouraging sign for the webs, which have been desperate to refresh the stagnating genre. And while there hasn’t been a breakout this fall in the vein of “Friends,” there are still several hints that comedy is finally crawling back.

At the top of the heap, NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” is off to a much bigger start than anyone had predicted, quickly becoming the top-rated laffer overall among adults 18-49 and scoring an early full-season pickup.

Then there’s the best-reviewed show of the fall: UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” which is giving NBC’s “Joey” a run for the comedy money on Thursday night (despite the obvious inequities between the two networks). UPN has also given “Chris” a full order.

Other new laffers showing strong early signs include CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother” and Fox’s “The War at Home.”

“There are signs of life in comedy,” says Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman.

Steve McPherson

ABC’s entertainment president came into the new season with the toughest task of any of his peers: Living up to high expectations in the wake of the Alphabet’s miracle 2004-05 season. And indeed, some critics are already carping that frosh dramas “Commander in Chief” and “Invasion” aren’t “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.”

That’s just silly.

“DH” and “Lost” roared back stronger than ever (avoiding a feared sophomore slump), while “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” have emerged as powerhouses in their own right. “Commander,” meanwhile, is the only frosh show to add viewers in its second airing and is giving ABC its best demo numbers on Tuesdays in two years.

“ABC has proved ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Lost’ weren’t flukes,” Beckman says. “They’re in a very good position for the rest of the season.”

20th Century Fox TV

Rupert Murdoch’s TV studio is playing the season’s hottest hand, with its best crop of frosh winners in years. That’s good news for sister net Fox, where 20th-produced sudser “Prison Break” is a solid success on Fox, crime drama “Bones” is off to a promising start and back-from-the-dead “Family Guy” is stronger than ever.

Early success of 20th comedies “Earl” and “Mother” may be most notable, however, since it reinforces the value of studios and nets from different sides of the corporate block working together. And if the good ratings hold up, 20th will be able to reap big backend bucks in a syndie marketplace dying for new laffers.

LOSERS

Returning Comedies

While entries like “Earl” and “Chris” shine, it’s been at the expense of returning laffers.

The sitcom doldrums haven’t been erased just yet. At the head of the pack: “Friends” spinoff “Joey,” which is pulling record low numbers for NBC on Thursday nights.

Over at CBS, “Two and a Half Men” is doing fine, but it’s not doing what “Everybody Loves Raymond” did in that slot — or what it did in its own post-“Raymond” period last year.

Viewers, meanwhile, simply decided they didn’t have room for ABC’s “According to Jim” in their diet; that sitcom’s 18-49 numbers were halved.

And meanwhile, Fox can’t get even get pulled over with “Arrested Development,” which, despite several Emmys and unanimous critical acclaim, is struggling on Mondays.

The Apprentice

As more viewers fire Donald Trump and “The Apprentice,” the once-mighty reality show is no longer a Thursday night threat.

On Wednesdays, meanwhile, no one even showed up for “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” party.

With the original “Apprentice” already showing declines last season, the “Martha” edition may have stretched the franchise too thin. And the shows themselves may have suffered under the weight of too much product placement, and casting that has never lived up to season one’s Omarosa-fueled drama.

Both shows may have also suffered from overexposure. Trump continues to be everywhere — even crooning the theme song to “Green Acres” at the Emmy Awards. And looky-loos interested in catching a glimpse of how Stewart looks and acts post-prison were already afforded the opportunity via her daytime talkshow, which is performing somewhat better.

Jerry Bruckheimer

With a half-dozen show from “CSI” to “The Amazing Race” still going strong, it’s impossible to call Bruckheimer a loser. But his Warner Bros. TV shingle is having a rocky fall.

Bruckheimer’s forays outside CBS are barely clinging to life, with the WB’s “Just Legal” and NBC’s “E-Ring” virtually DOA. Premiere numbers for Eye effort “Close to Home” were better, but failed to live up to most industry expectations.

If Bruckheimer is feeling down, however, he should just call up Aaron Spelling, who’s never let his many misses — anyone remember “Nightingales” or “Winnetka Road”? — slow him down.

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