When showbiz writers finally worked out their three-month strike in February, you could hear Hollywood's collective breath release from 2,000 miles away.
But now that a final spate of new TV episodes are appearing for the last five to six weeks of the season, the open question is whether viewers — and advertisers — will follow.
And can anybody in TV get excited about a monthlong taste of new shows just before the doldrums of summer reruns set in?
Truth is, the network TV industry is increasingly swamped by unscripted, so-called reality shows, a trend the writers strike only accelerated.
And whereas promising new shows such as ABC's Miss Guided and Eli Stone have languished, reality hits such as American Idol, Celebrity Apprentice, American Gladiators and Moment of Truth have commanded huge audiences.
NBC entertainment head Ben Silverman, who first made his showbiz bones selling American TV networks reality concepts such as The Biggest Loser and Big Brother, last week resisted the idea that complex scripted fare was leaving the networks, introducing new series for next season featuring Christian Slater, Molly Shannon and Ian McShane.
"There's an appetite for specific shows, and those shows will probably have even bigger audiences (when they return)," Silverman said. "But there's no question, to break through, you need to be smart. That's why we're trying to find these big themes and these big concepts to build our shows around, so we can break through that clutter and demand the audience's attention."
TV is increasingly divided; on one side, broadcast networks chase big audiences, often with broad reality shows, and on the other side, some cable channels target wealthy, more intellectual viewers with expensive, complex dramas.
"In a world where people have less time to sit in front of the television, most of these (reality) shows are close-ended . . . you can miss a week of Moment of Truth and still know how the game is played," said Alan Frutkin, a senior editor at Mediaweek. "Sometimes, with (scripted) series, the reward of watching doesn't match the commitment required."
In other words, producers of scripted network TV better bring some serious game over the next few weeks, or we're all going back to the YouTube videos and iTunes downloads that got us through the strike in the first place.
Here's a look at a few of the shows returning this week, with a peek at where each story picks up and whether they are worth watching again.
NCIS returns at 8 Tuesday on CBS
We last saw Mark Harmon's team of Naval and Marine Corps crime investigators trying to figure out who killed a Muslim marine. New episodes find David McCallum's quirky pathologist hiding a secret that might come between Harmon's Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs and Lauren Holly's NCIS director Jenny Shepard, while tattooed forensics expert Abby Sciuto puts her career on the line for a, um, dog. Probably not enough to pull anyone from tonight's edition of American Idol.
Boston Legal returns at 10 Tuesday on ABC
We left James Spader's Alan Shore and William Shatner's Denny Crane preparing to take the Coast Guard test, just as a sexy client they've both romanced hires their law firm for a new case. In new episodes, Candice Bergen's Shirley Schmidt defends a pal who shoots seals for food and asks Spader's character to argue a court case for her father's assisted suicide. Worth watching only if Law & Order: SVU keeps sucking wind.
30 Rock returns at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC
Alec Baldwin's blindingly self-centered conservative GE executive Jack Donaghy was ending his star-crossed, long-distance romance with Edie Falco's liberal congresswoman C.C. Cunningham, while Tina Fey's Liz Lemon lost her bid to buy a condominium after an awkward, bad date of a meeting with the condo board. In the new episodes, we see more of Donaghy's reality TV success, MILF Island, and guest appearances by Tim Conway, Will Arnett and Rip Torn. Paired with new Thursday episodes from Scrubs, The Office and ER, this is a return you can't miss — if only to see exactly what a reality show called MILF Island looks like.
Desperate Housewives returns at 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC
After a tornado ravaged Wisteria Lane, we all discovered that neighborhood drunk Ida Greenberg died saving the family of Felicity Huffman's Lynette Scavo, and that Eva Longoria's Gabrielle Lang saw her husband and town mayor Victor Lang killed while trying to murder her former husband, Carlos Solis. It only gets weirder, as the story jumps one month past the twister's impact; James Denton's Mike Delfino is finishing rehab (where he had a shocking experience); Gabrielle learns Carlos' blindness may be permanent; and more secrets of Dana Delany's villainous Katherine Mayfair are revealed. Toss in the return of Jason Gedrick's Rick Coletti and Gary Cole as Mayfair's ex-husband, and you have a string of episodes better than sitting through an '80s flashback on Cold Case, for sure.
Law & Order: SVU returns at 10 p.m. April 15 on NBC
Fans recoiled as the Special Victims' Unit became embroiled in increasingly obtuse story lines, including a rape victim kidnapped by his Hasidic Jewish father who turned out to be assaulted by a friend in school. Future episodes won't get any better, as Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson goes undercover as a prison inmate to solve a rape and eventually finds a boyfriend — who turns out to be the president from Independence Day, Bill Pullman. If the competition weren't Boston Legal, I'd be lunging for the remote control.
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.