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Fall TV isn't fiery, but it has hot spots

Hal Boedeker
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)
Fringe

What kind of TV season is it so far?

"A no-fun fall," USA Today ruled. "A season of disappointments," The New York Times headlined.

But the glass may be more half full than many industry observers suggest. Consider:

There have been falls without any new hit series. This one has produced two. CBS' "The Mentalist," a diverting detective show with Simon Baker, is averaging 16.5 million viewers and ranks No. 6.

"The Mentalist" is doing well in a tough time slot, at 9 p.m. Tuesdays, against ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" results show (No. 7 with 16.4 million) and Fox's "Fringe" (No. 30 with 10.1 million).

"Fringe" is the other hit, a flashy supernatural drama that fondly echoes "The X-Files" and brings in young adults so dear to advertisers.

Make no mistake: There have been many failures, such as NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy," CBS' "The Ex List" and Fox's "Do Not Disturb." But a few hits give hope.

Notable long-running hits remain sturdy. CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" ranks No. 1 with 21.1 million. The show continues to tell gripping adult stories as Grissom (William Petersen) prepares to depart.

ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" shook up its casting and had the public debating Cloris Leachman's off-the-wall antics. Brooke Burke and Warren Sapp are two of the strongest contenders ever. Is it any surprise the Monday performance show is No. 2 with 19.3 million?

CBS' "NCIS" drew its biggest audience ever last week. The Mark Harmon drama ranks No. 3 (with 18.4 million). And it's slotted against Fox's "House" (No. 15 with 13.3 million). "House" would be more formidable in a later time slot. Even so, fans are furiously debating a House-Cuddy romance - a sign of the drama's health.

ABC's "Desperate Housewives" re-energized itself by jumping five years into the future. The stories are juicier, and guest stars (Lily Tomlin, Gail O'Grady) have added sizzle. The comedy-drama is No. 5 with 17.1 million.

Although "Grey's Anatomy" bungled the Callie-Erica love story, that drama is still No. 4 with 17.8 million. No matter how the show stumbled, it wisely added Kevin McKidd. No. 1 CBS is doing far better than the competition. CBS is succeeding with crime drama: No. 8 "Criminal Minds," No. 10 "CSI: NY" and No. 11 "CSI: Miami." But CBS is doing well with comedy (No. 12 "Two and a Half Men") and news (No. 13 "60 Minutes"). (By comparison, NBC has one bright spot: "Sunday Night Football" at No. 9 with 15 million).

CBS' "Survivor" has been the fall's great unsung pleasure: A reality series displaying the old verve with smart casting, suspenseful twists and the fabulous backdrop of Gabon. "Survivor" ranks No. 14.

The fall isn't only about the broadcast networks. Cable news covered an exciting presidential race. AMC's "Mad Men" delivered a second season even better than its Emmy-winning first. HBO's "True Blood" built a strong fan base with unusual vampires and a lovable heroine, Sookie Stackhouse (Oscar-winner Anna Paquin).

If you haven't seen "True Blood," just wait for the DVD. You'll consume it like a great novel. The DVD format has been very good to FX's "Damages," Fox's "24" and ABC's "Lost."

They - and Fox's "American Idol" - all return in January. So if you didn't like the fall, the glass should be more than half full soon.

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