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Prime-time shows get last laugh on Leno

Television Critic

Poor old NBC.

There they sit with “The Jay Leno Show,” TV’s equivalent of that famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, having called time of death on scripted drama and indeed traditional network television while all around them great new shows are popping up like the plague victim in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” “I’m not dead,” says ABC with its new comedy lineup; “I’m getting better,” says CBS with “The Good Wife” and “NCIS: Los Angeles.” “I think I’ll go for a walk,” adds Fox with the runaway buzz generator “Glee.”

Meanwhile, NBC is hanging on with critical-maybe “Community” and on-the-bubble “Mercy”; the network was forced to “cancel” “Trauma,” even though it’s not really canceled per se, because there is literally nothing to replace it.

This is what happens when you panic -- you leave your combat buddy for dead only to find he wasn’t, and then he comes back for revenge. Network TV -- it’s aaalllliiiivvvee.

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In all fairness, one can’t put all the blame on NBC. Pretty much everyone has been mourning the death of network TV for years; it was a dominant theme at this year’s Emmys, for gosh sakes. Beset by cable, YouTube, Hulu and the writers strike, the networks seemed like they were in a free-fall, with only a few new bright spots -- “The Mentalist” on CBS -- offering any hope at all.

But this summer, while all the media pundits were wasting way too much time and energy pontificating about the meaning of a 10 p.m. slot dominated by the new Leno show, writers, producers and actors were busy putting together a bunch of terrific shows. And not just on HBO and Showtime.

ABC had the best fall. Without too much fanfare, the network brought us “Modern Family,”“V,”FlashForward,”Cougar Town” and “The Middle.” CBS added the wildly popular “Los Angeles” to its enormous “NCIS” fan base and threw in the wonderful “The Good Wife” to boot. (I like “Three Rivers” too, though a hit it’s not.) Fox’s “Glee” is a multimedia sensation, with “Past Life” and the regrettably named “Human Target” set to debut in January.

Sure, there were a lot of misses too -- “Hank” comes to mind, as does “The Forgotten” and “Accidentally on Purpose,” but still it was far from the sort of wipe-the-slate-clean season to which we have all become accustomed. And while “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” preempt their neighbors whenever they need to go into overtime, it’s hard to say “There’s nothing on TV” and make it stick. There’s plenty on TV and for once you don’t have to have premium channels or BBC America to see it.

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Meanwhile, NBC is still stuck with Leno. Yes, it is cheaper to produce than a scripted anything, but so is televising the Glendale City Council meeting or my kid’s talent show, and clearly that’s not the answer.

It might have helped if Leno and his writers had delivered on what they promised -- a show markedly different from “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” but they didn’t. And no matter how much fans may love Leno and his monologues, it’s difficult to imagine many people settling in at 10 p.m. for a 20-minute chat with Abigail Breslin, who is, after all, only 13, God bless her, even if there are paintballs involved.

No, as Leno’s ratings fall, people are obviously using that block of time to catch up on the recordings of the other major network shows they love.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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