The shows people really love are on cable

If the current TV season were a baseball game, December’s arrival — the industry’s equivalent of the seventh-inning stretch — would see managers frantically signaling to bring in relief pitchers.

Maybe it was anticipating of the shifting political winds, but the major networks were inordinately conservative in assembling their September lineups, taking only a few calculated risks. And while that’s not particularly new, their year of living safely has yielded what amounts to a qualitative siesta.

That’s disheartening, from a critical standpoint, coming on the heels of a mini-resurgence during the 2009-10 season punctuated by “Glee,” “Modern Family” and “The Good Wife.” With those programs, broadcasters achieved commercial success — along with Emmy nominations — by venturing beyond their comfort zones.

Alas, the new season produced little to sustain that momentum. Moreover, even the programs that won modest acclaim for their pilots have, for the most part, failed to fulfill their promise (again, creatively speaking) upon repeated exposure.

While Fox’s “Lone Star” barely got time to lace up its boots, time-period rival “The Event” has grown less eventful, as has “Hawaii Five-0.” “No Ordinary Family” has proved far too ordinary in its domestic exploits — more suited to ABC Family than ABC — and CBS’ “Mike and Molly” took a sweet premise about two overweight people finding love and has not-entirely-sidestepped concerns about relentless fat jokes by being unnecessarily smutty.

In this case, just because you can (as in “Hey, we’re following ‘Two and a Half Men.’ Unleash the sex gags!”) doesn’t mean you should.

As for last year’s newcomers, while “Modern Family” continues to delight, “Glee” is producing fewer transcendent moments to override its clunkier ones, stoking apprehensions that anything burning so brightly risks flaming out just as rapidly.

Creatively, the breakthroughs have once again largely come from the cable universe — most notably “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Walking Dead” — renewing concerns about a two-tiered system.

If these trend lines continue, the fear is higher-quality programs will gravitate almost exclusively to TV’s equivalent of the arthouse circuit, while networks retreat to the franchise business, figuring every good crime show deserves at least one L.A.-based spinoff.

We’ve heard a lot about a “lost decade” in terms of the U.S. economy, but unless the midseason reinforcements improve matters, the networks might wind up regretting their own lost 2010. It was, after all, the year in which they bid farewell to a trio of long-running hits that were also Emmy winners, each significant in its own way — “Lost,” “24,” “Law and Order” — without anointing worthy heirs.

CBS, perhaps, can survive mainly on a meat-and-potatoes diet, but even there, brand extensions go only so far. At a time when networks have finally made inroads in pressuring cable operators to pay retransmission fees, you also have to wonder about whether middling fare is going to be good enough in a climate based more on cash transactions and less on inertia.

To be fair, broadcasters are holding their own — and certain staples, particularly NFL football, are demonstrating their enduring clout as a mass medium.

But that’s not considering the passion deficit — the gap between programs that people watch avidly, time-shift religiously and (if push comes to shove) are willing to buy vs. those they enjoy more passively.

At first, network honchos exulted rather haughtily — in some cases, almost gleefully — over the audience’s utter rejection of “Lone Star.” Some seized on its quick exit as a sign of critics’ irrelevance, inasmuch as the show drew the most positive reviews among this season’s network newcomers.

Upon further review, though, the high-profile projects put into development for next season reflect a grudging acknowledgement that this season’s tepid results warrant more adventurousness. And perhaps the retransmission windfall will help provide the cushion to take those chances.

Until then, “Walking Dead” has inadvertently provided an apt metaphor for the fall’s creative malaise: From a distance, the zombies amble along harmlessly enough. It’s only when you let them get too close that their lifelessness and lack of soul become apparent — and by then, it’s almost too late to keep them from eating your brains.

brian.lowry@variety.com

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