The fall TV season began as a bloodbath (Vanished proved an all-too-appropriate title). But now the networks are showing surprising patience by awarding some ratings underachievers a new lease on life. Here are the freshmen that are making the cut.
Standoff (FOX, TUESDAYS 8-9PM)
Ron Livingston and Rosemarie DeWitt play hostage negotiators/lovers who find it easy to communicate with criminals but not with each other. BACKSTORY It premiered to 13.6 million viewers, but the show is starting to look more like Turnoff the Nov. 7 episode reached only 5.4 million. SAVED BECAUSE... While we like to think the pickup has to do with enduring love for Livingston's Office Space, Fox had other reasons. ''We saw three episodes in a row where we were like, 'Wow. This show is funny and these are really good episodes,''' says Craig Erwich, Fox's exec VP of programming.
The Class (CBS, MONDAYS 8:30-9PM)
Students of a third-grade class (including Jason Ritter and Lizzy Caplan) reunite as adults. Since this is a sitcom, most of them are loony. BACKSTORY Co-created by Friends' David Crane and given a plum Monday time slot, The Class has struggled like a chubby kid in PE, averaging only 8.5 million. SAVED BECAUSE... The network ordered six more episodes, mostly due to Crane's clout. ''[This creative team] is not something you toss aside if the numbers aren't everything you hope they'll be in the first weeks,'' says CBS exec VP of comedy development Wendi Trilling.
'Til Death (FOX, THURSDAYS 8-8:30PM)
The Married...With Children-esque sitcom stars Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher as a bickering couple whose new neighbors are lovey-dovey newlyweds. BACKSTORY Garrett's a popular TV star, but his return to the tube has been no honeymoon: Death debuted to a lukewarm 8.8 million viewers. One theory: It's not funny. SAVED BECAUSE... ''We know that the show is not going to be a breakout ratings success because of where it is on Thursday night,'' explains Fox's Erwich. ''You gotta play for the long term.'' To that end, the network gave Garrett and Co. a full-season pickup.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, MONDAYS 10-11PM)
The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin goes behind the scenes of an SNL-like show with Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford. BACKSTORY Since bowing to 13.4 million, its numbers have dropped weekly, recently leveling off at around 7.7 million. SAVED BECAUSE... Sorkin is one of TV's best writers and NBC, which gave Studio 60 a full order, says the show attracts wealthy viewers, which advertisers like. ''When you have a quality upscale show, it allows patience,'' says Mitch Metcalf, NBC's exec VP of program planning and scheduling.
Men in Trees (ABC, THURSDAYS 10-11PM)
Jilted by her fiancé, self-help novelist Marin Frist (Anne Heche) ditches NYC for an Alaskan town populated mainly by available men. And one annoying raccoon. BACKSTORY A surprisingly entertaining dramedy, Trees has found loyal female fans and an average audience of 7.2 million despite originally airing opposite CBS' Friday hit Close to Home. SAVED BECAUSE... Ladies love Trees, and advertisers like ladies. They especially love ladies who watch Grey's Anatomy, which is why ABC recently moved Treesto Thursdays at 10 p.m., behind the medical smash.
Friday Night Lights (NBC, TUESDAYS 8-9PM)
Kyle Chandler stars in the football drama based on the book and 2004 film. BACKSTORY One of the most critically acclaimed new series, Lights was sacked by ex-NFL player Emmitt Smith and ABC's Dancing With the Stars. SAVED BECAUSE... After trying it out in Studio 60's time slot, NBC has shown support with a 22-episode order. Lights will stay on Tuesdays, but should relocate when American Idol returns in January. ''Idol is like a hurricane: You know where it's going to hit,'' says NBC's Metcalf. ''We've got to move the ships into safe harbor.''