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You know it’s been an underwhelming fall season when Marie Osmond fainting on “Dancing with the Stars” amounts to big news.


New hit shows? What are those?


Six weeks into the new season, not one new series has broken out of the pack to generate buzz and become a significant success the way “Heroes” and “Ugly Betty” did last year.


That’s not necessarily due to a quality meltdown.


In fact, the fall’s most vibrantly imaginative newcomer, ABC’s “Pushing Daisies,” has proved to be a high-quality delight. And it’s attracting 11 million viewers, winning its 8 p.m. Wednesday time period and earning an early full season renewal.


But last season’s “Heroes”—which averaged 14.3 million viewers—quickly became a pop culture phenomenon, particularly among the young. That buzz status hasn’t happened to “Daisies.”


Instead, it is familiar standbys like “CSI,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House” and the aforementioned “DWTS” that occupy every Nielsen Top 10 slot this fall.


Now, with the first Hollywood writers strike in 20 years just starting, the 2007 fall season could grow even gloomier. If the strike continues, new and old shows will halt production, cutting viewers off from fresh episodes of prime-time comedy and drama series.


But there’s no reason to fret about what you can’t control. So let’s roll with some eye candy fun and games.


Most popular kid in the freshman class: Blessed with the ultra-deluxe, post-“Dancing with the Stars” time slot at 9:30 Mondays on ABC, Christina Applegate’s lively amnesia farce “Samantha Who?” has been the fall’s biggest new audience draw. It ranks No. 13 among all shows in total viewers, averaging 14 million over its first three episodes.


But will viewers disappear when “DWTS” ends its season?


Meanwhile, other top-rated rookies include “Private Practice” (No. 19, 13.2 million), “Pushing Daisies” (No. 27, 11.1 million), “Bionic Woman” (No. 28, 11 million) and “Women’s Murder Club” (No. 33, 10.1 million).


The jive five: Our picks for the five worst new series are “Gossip Girl,” “Kid Nation,” “Private Practice,” “Cavemen” and “Moonlight.” Annoying “Private Practice” (the dippy spawn of “Grey’s Anatomy”) also wins the “After M*A*S*H” Certificate of Bad Spin-Off Dishonor.


Most significant viewer behavior trend: The growing gizmo impact of the TiVo, or Digital Video Recorder (DVR) as it is generically known. The penetration of DVRs has more than doubled from last year, going from 9 percent to 20 percent. And many more viewers are now recording favorite shows for viewing at a later date. For instance, “Grey’s Anatomy,” averaging 20 million viewers each Thursday night, also picks up an additional 2 million viewers within a week because of the DVR effect.


The DVR impact will only grow as networks struggle to redefine what constitutes a hit show. Though “Gossip Girl” on smallish CW is averaging just 2.7 million viewers each Wednesday, the number jumps 20 percent after DVR viewing is included. And Nielsen is now charting DVR viewership as part of its ratings game.


Top time slot slugfest: It’s the Wednesday night fights at 9 o’clock, when crime procedural “Criminal Minds” (No. 9, 15 million viewers) remains the top dog. But rookies “Private Practice,” “Bionic Woman” and “Gossip Girl” have all carved out successful niches so far despite the intense competition.


Sleazy teenage kicks: Speaking of “Gossip Girl,” the sumptuously silly soap opera about pampered, party-hard rich kids who drink, drug and sex it up, is my very favorite target for rubber brick tossing practice. But let’s face it, at 62 I’m so far removed from the show’s young (18-34) target audience as to be living on Prime-Time Pluto.


Cosmic flop sings a fast cancellation song: Blink and you missed “Viva Laughlin,” CBS’ misbegotten musical mystery drama, which was given the hook after only two miserably low-rated episodes.


So-so supernaturally: Though “Pushing Daisies” and “Bionic Woman” are doing respectable viewer business, a new wave of fantasy and sci-fi shows has thoroughly failed to match the “Heroes” sizzle from last year. Whether clever (“Reaper,” “Chuck”), tritely contrived (“Journeyman”) or just plain crummy (“Moonlight”), members of the paranormal pack have fizzled more than sizzled.


Most appealing geek chic newcomer: OK, even if his show is getting lost in the Monday night shuffle, “Chuck” star Zachary Levi has flashed a very cool gawky dweeb charm. He’s one of the fall season’s most appealing new faces.


Most welcome prime-time return: Former “Married ... with Children” teen tartlet Christina Applegate as the sweetly daft amnesia victim on “Samantha Who?” You don’t have to be a chucklehead rocket scientist to know there’s very likely an Emmy nomination headed her way.


Sophomore slump: With its ratings in slight decline and its complicated storyline stumbling, “Heroes” is looking wobbly. And 50 percent of those who participated in an AOL.com viewer poll that drew 2.5 million votes agreed that “Heroes” has “gone stale.” Oops.


Sophomore non-slump: Despite continued so-so ratings, “30 Rock” is rolling better than ever in the quality chucklehead groove. Tina Fey’s razor-sharp backstage romp has established itself as network TV’s best comedy series, just a nutty soupcon ahead of “The Office,” its Peacock Network playmate. Also kicking it with sophomore style is ABC’s comic sweetheart “Ugly Betty.”


Three is not the charm: “Prison Break” is broke. Or at the very least it’s lost its penitentiary thriller mojo in Season 3, which has Michael Scofield stuck in a Panamanian incarceration hellhole. Bo-ring. This once compelling show should have cashed in its cellblock chips after two seasons.


Gloomy remake mistake: “Bionic Woman,” which despite its pop culture buzz and fairly solid viewership is one intensely grim sci-fi fairy tale. And “Bionic” has a chronic problem—the sullen mope performance of Michelle Ryan as Jaime Sommers. This action doll is a dud.


Scene stealer supreme: Ray Wise, you rock! The veteran character actor (“Twin Peaks,” “24”) is a laugh riot Lucifer on “Reaper,” merrily pilfering every scene he’s in with that wicked Satanic grin, arched eyebrow and killer comic repartee. Guess the devil made him do it.


___


THE 5 BEST NEW SHOWS


“Pushing Daisies” (8 p.m. Wednesday, ABC). The playful, visually enchanting romantic fairy tale of pie maker Ned (Lee Pace) and soul mate Chuck (Anna Friel) has wonderfully sustained its loving, loopy spirit. It’s the fall’s best and most charming newcomer.


“Back to You” (8 p.m. Wednesday, Fox). Old-school comic cool. Kelsey Grammer, plus Patricia Heaton, plus sharp, sassy writing from talented veteran “Frasier” producers equals a sly, dependably funny TV newsroom sitcom traditionally filmed before a studio audience. Bonus points to Fred Willard’s slaphappy sportscaster.


“Dirty Sexy Money” (10 p.m. Wednesday, ABC). Bless this lavishly nutty soap opera about an ultra-dysfunctional rich family that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The cast, headed by Peter Krause and Donald Sutherland, is terrific. A guilty pleasure with a brain is good to find.


“Reaper” (9 p.m. Tuesday, CW). It’s the three supernatural stooges. Slacker Sam (Bret Harrison) and wisenheimer pal Sock (Tyler Labine) are bounty hunters for one nutty Satan (Ray Wise, “Twin Peaks”), tracking down evil, escaped souls from Lucifer’s smokin’ hot subterranean lair. Happy result: A consistently witty, imaginative mash-up of “Ghostbusters” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”


“Aliens in America” (8:30 p.m. Monday, CW). This post-9/11 culture clash comedy, featuring the small- town high school outsider stories of gawky Justin (Dan Byrd) and Pakistani Muslim exchange student Raja (the excellent Adhir Kalyan), has been a merry prankster delight, infused with sharp-edged wit and a refreshingly sweet nature.

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