Now that we're coming to the end of the calendar year, I think it's time once and for all to proclaim this the worst fall TV season ever - or at least in the 15 autumns I've been writing about television.
Crippled by last winter's writers' strike during what's usually pilot-development season, the major broadcast networks didn't produce a single compelling new show this fall. In fact, the two best network series, in my humble opinion, have both already been canceled.
About the closest the networks came to producing an across-the-board hit was "The Mentalist," CBS' new drama starring Simon Baker. It's a decent piece of work and easy on the eyes, at least where female viewers are concerned, but its premise is basically a variation on USA's "Psych," not something Your Friendly Neighborhood TV Critic can get behind.
Things might get better at midseason. ABC and CBS are both launching several new shows early in the new year, and of course Fox will try to seize the initiative as ever behind the annual midwinter returns of "American Idol" and "24." Yet for now the harvest from the fall TV season seems almost barren, with only HBO (of course) producing a fine new addition, but even that with reservations. Here are the best new shows of the fall, followed by the rotten apples at the bottom of the barrel.
1) "True Blood" - HBO's vampire drama came on at first like a soft-core-porn "Dark Shadows," but it found writer-creator Alan Ball, formerly of "Six Feet Under," developing a new set of expressions for his old obsessions. Late in the season it also developed a sense of itself and, even more important, a sense of self-deprecating humor reminiscent of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It's easily the best of a bad bunch.
2) "Easy Money" - Laurie Metcalf's drama about a family of loan sharks in a southwestern strip mall could have been great. But with the Tribune feuding with the CW network, WGN Channel 9 and other local affiliates never got behind it, and it died a swift death.
3) "The Ex List" - I had my doubts about this romantic comedy about a woman out to find her soul mate from the men she'd previously dated, but the randy ensemble cast and their open sexuality won me over. Unfortunately, those qualities also made it stick out like, um, a sore thumb on CBS, and it was gone by mid-fall, leaving me to ask anew, "For this they canceled 'Moonlight?'"
4) "Fringe" - Fox's paranoid conspiracy drama is still the most promising series of the fall, even if it's largely been spinning its wheels. Fox is giving it every chance to survive and thrive, however, and it may yet develop into a worthwhile program.
5) "Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ..." - Bravo makes a fine new addition to the music-interview series, with Elvis doing his best James Lipton imitation - when he isn't rocking out with guests like Elton John and Lou Reed.
6) "Life on Mars" - Too derivative of its British original and too high-concept on its own to be much of an improvement, this still gets grudging approval for its '70s authenticity, especially Michael Imperioli's fu manchu.
7) "Skins" - In many ways, this British series about randy teens out-gossiped "Gossip Girl" and unzipped the CW's new "90210."
8) "Sons of Anarchy" - FX was hoping its "Hot-Rod Hamlet" would be a fitting running mate for "The Shield," but like an old Harley it was more noise then performance.
9) "The Mentalist" - Easy on the eyes, the ears and above all the brain, it's the one new hit of the fall.
10) "Leverage" - Timothy Hutton made TNT's new caper series set in Chicago something more than a run-of-the-mill action drama.
Now, skipping over midrange shows like "The IFC Media Project," "Gary Unmarried" and "Summer Heights High," let's go from "Worst Week" to even worse, the low points of the season in descending order.
5) "Raising the Bar" - Steven Bochco falls back on every idealistic cliché of the legal drama in a TNT series that makes David E. Kelley seem original.
4) "Crash" - Starz launches its first original series - and debases the Oscar-winning movie it's based on.
3) "Redemption Song" - Fuse takes women out of the slammer and puts them in an "American Idol"-style singing competition in a show that deserves to be placed in isolation.
2) "Do not Disturb" - Fox's woeful hotel sitcom was the first series to be canceled this fall. Yes, Virginia, there is a TV god.
1) "Knight Rider," "Kath & Kim" and in fact NBC's entire fall slate, last but not least "Momma's Boys" - This was the roadkill that paved the way for Jay Leno's entry into prime time - and what seems the end of the line for NBC as a major network.