Tune in, drop out 

The 2006 TV season hits the quarter pole this week with the November ratings sweeps battle — although the way shows are launched, yanked and shuffled around prime-time schedules these days, the term "fall season" has become mostly ceremonial.

The new Taye Diggs series Daybreak, kind of a Groundhog Day meets 24, doesn't premiere on ABC (Channel 7 in Detroit) until Nov. 15, replacing Lost for three months (hey, I'm just the messenger). The real 24, reigning Emmy favorite as TV's best drama, doesn't return to the FOX (Channel 2) lineup until January.

Yet there's good news to report: Television is better than ever. OK, maybe that's media hype. There's still too much cheap-to-produce reality programming on the tube, and — now that Deal or No Deal has made nighttime safe for game shows again — everybody from Bob Saget to Jimmy Kimmel will be doing his best Bob Barker imitation in the months to come. What's encouraging is that the new crop of prime-time dramas are more promising than usual. There's every indication that the next Lost, Prison Break or Grey's Anatomy may emerge from this freshman class of creativity.

One of my favorites, Smith on CBS (Channel 62), has already tasted the ax after just three episodes. The early casualty starred Ray Liotta in his Goodfellas mode as a suburban husband who's a master criminal by night, and the network claimed audiences just couldn't embrace the notion of rooting for the bad guy. But it's just as true that Smith cost nearly $3 million an episode to produce, so its fate may have been due as much to studio accountants as ratings reports. When television starts pinching pennies, you know these are tough times.

What's fascinating is that many new series seem to have knockoff versions on rival networks. You have Kidnapped on NBC (Channel 4) and Vanished on FOX, the loathsome lawyers of Shark on CBS and those of Justice on FOX. Hmmm ... the common denominator seems to be FOX. Makes you think.

So of the dozens of new shows now settling into their on-air homes, here are three you should latch onto if you haven't already, and three you need to avoid like a Dick DeVos rally.

Three up

Kidnapped, 9 p.m. Saturdays, NBC: It has already fallen victim to network meddling, thrown from a cushy Wednesday slot into weekend purgatory. But this intricate tale of the abduction and attempted recovery of a wealthy industrialist's son plays like Ransom with a better ensemble. Delroy Lindo is velvet-smooth as the fed assigned to the case, and the return of Timothy Hutton and Dana Delany to lead roles is a welcome sight.

Shark, 10 p.m. Thursdays, CBS: I could watch James Woods read a bus schedule, and he's given great latitude to chew scenery as a ruthless defense attorney turned prosecutor. The very definition of a star vehicle, with CSI as lead-in.

The Nine, 10 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC: NBC's Heroes is getting all the buzz — and understandably so — but I've been amazed at how much complexity and character development can be woven into this seemingly hackneyed tale of a bank heist. Too bad Yahoo! came out with a daily webcast called "The 9" almost simultaneously.

Three down

Justice, 9 p.m. Wednesdays, FOX: Too bad Justice can't be deaf and mute as well as blind. If you're going to put together an ensemble cast of haughty, mean-spirited attorneys, it's good to at least recognize someone in the ensemble. Victor Garber ain't no James Woods.

Twenty Good Years, 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, NBC: You want to give Jeffrey Tambor a mulligan. He did hone his dramatic art at Wayne State, and his work on Arrested Development was note-perfect, but this pairing with fellow comedy vet John Lithgow in an all-male send-up of The Golden Girls just creaks. If it lasts 20 weeks, I'll be shocked.

'Til Death, 8 p.m. Thursdays, FOX: I've tried hard to like this sitcom, and FOX has tried even harder to promote it. But after Brad Garrett's Emmy-worthy seasons on Everybody Loves Raymond, you have a right to expect more than a poor imitation of Married ... With Children.

Swept under

Movie critics are bemoaning the absence of a true blockbuster release for the rest of the year, and a scarcity of sizzle appears to be afflicting the small screen too. When a 25th anniversary reunion of Anthony Geary and Genie Francis, General Hospital's Luke and Laura, on SoapNET (7 p.m. Nov. 24) is one of November's highlights, this year's sweeps could give you the creeps.

However, transcendent crooner Tony Bennett celebrates his 80th birthday with friends ranging from Barbra Streisand to Christina Aguilera on Tony Bennett: An American Classic (8 p.m. Nov. 21, NBC). Also, Helen Mirren reprises her marvelously hard-bitten role as Detective Jane Tennison one last time in the two-part Prime Suspect: The Final Act Nov. 12 and 19 on PBS (Channel 56). And the Country Music Awards hit the big 4-0 at 8 p.m. next Monday on ABC.

Otherwise, most of the big bang this November will come from "stunting" — major stars making guest appearances on existing series. Roseanne Barr and Christian Slater will pop up on My Name Is Earl. The Who's Roger Daltrey — whose voice graces its theme song — will turn up on CSI.

Also in November: Lorelai (Lauren Graham) ties the knot on Gilmore Girls. Medium and The O.C. return. The incomparable Stanley Tucci arrives as a House-like neurosurgeon on the new series 3 Lbs. (Nov. 14, CBS). This Friday on Law & Order (10 p.m., NBC) Chevy Chase guests in a much-publicized episode about a drunk-driving, anti-Semitic celebrity who is not Mel Gibson. Riiiight.

Jim McFarlin writes about the boob tube for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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