LOS ANGELES — Midseason television used to be the period in which broadcasters dumped the shows they had little confidence in. More often than not, network shows unveiled in this post-Christmas doldrums came and went with the speed of a typical New Year's resolution.
But no longer.
Heavy on spooky drama, offbeat characters, and spinoffs, January's menu of some 30 new and returning series is almost as attention-grabbing as the traditional fall launch window.
Competition from cable, which has never marched to the conventional September/May beat, has helped make this time of year more important as the networks search for new ways to compete.
Fox has led the network push toward more year-round programming. "The midseason launch is really important for us and has been for some time," says Gail Berman, Fox Entertainment president. Three of the channel's most popular shows return to the small screen this month: "American Idol," "24," and "The Simple Life." But programs launched this time of year, she adds, "are not the stepchild any more."
Here are some highlights of the January launch season - as well as a look at some highly anticipated shows a bit further down the road:
Medium (NBC - Mon. 10 p.m.): This new law and order procedural features the wonderful Patricia Arquette as a reluctant mouthpiece for supernatural crime sources. Dead people speak to her, particularly those who had an untimely demise, and she uses the information to help solve crimes. It helps to know that the character is based on a real person and Arquette's stubborn humanity keeps the hour from getting goofy - the show is as much about her own struggle to accept and apply her sixth sense as it is about the criminals.
Point Pleasant (FOX - Thurs., 9 p.m.): A return to familiar territory for fans of "Buffy" and, for the older generation, "Rosemary's Baby," this is another show with supernatural subtext - the daughter of an unholy alliance between the Devil and a mortal woman has mysteriously washed up on the bucolic shores of an unsuspecting New Jersey town. The residents begin to mirror her personal struggle to win the battle between good and evil for her eternal soul.
Committed (NBC - Tues., 9:30 p.m.): One of the few new comedies this season, this show tries mightily to make us laugh at some pretty weird individuals, including an Ivy League dropout who keeps human skulls in his cupboard and a ditzy occupational therapist who subleases an apartment complete with a dying clown in her closet.
Since the title is a play on the marginal mental state of the show's main characters, the humor in the early episodes focuses heavily on who's crazier, him or her.
"Committed" could be funny, though it's a wait-and-see.
Alias (ABC - Wed., 9 p.m.): Hooray! Sydney, the superspy played by Jennifer Garner, returns along with the customary wigs, wacky costumes, and convoluted plotlines. For fans of the story about the Rimbaldi artifact - newcomers, don't ask - it's time to move on. According to J.J. Abrams, executive producer and creator, the show is returning to its roots: loads of action and an emphasis on Sydney's search for familial peace even as she hops in and out of at least five new identities per show, and saves the world from total annihilation by 10 p.m.
24 (Fox - Mon., 9 p.m.): Critics doubted if the central conceit - a show that moved in real time through a single day - could be sustained. Now in its fourth season, "24" has evolved into an intriguing fast-paced thrill ride. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) returns with an almost entirely new supporting cast and a lean, quick-stepping story. One of this season's stars, Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, defends the show against criticism that it is heavy on Middle Eastern terrorism with the observation that the show takes its cue from events in the real world. "Unfortunately, that's where much of the terrorism is based right now," she says.
Candice Bergen on Boston Legal (ABC - Sun., 10 p.m.): No matter what you think of this fall's new show from veteran dramatist David Kelley ("Ally McBeal," "The Practice"), the mid-season introduction of Bergen as one of the firm's senior partners is reason enough to tune in.
Bergen is a wonderfully complex comedienne with just the right bite for the show's satirical tone but enough savvy to balance it with a knowing gravitas.
While James Spader and William Shatner have been fun in their creepy ways, Bergen balances the show out and besides, who doesn't want to watch Murphy Brown take on Captain Kirk?
Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, a three-part coproduction with the BBC, airs Wednesdays, Jan. 19, 26, and Feb. 2. A companion book and study guide are available to accompany the documentary.
Pegged to Black History Month, Slavery and the Making of America is a four-part series airing Feb. 9 and 16, 9-11 p.m. The show uses re-creations and narration to examine the idea that, as featured scholar James Horton puts it, "slavery was no sideshow in American history - it was the main event."
Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi Channel - Fri., 9 p.m.) and The Shield (FX, March 15): These two basic cable shows bring a trio of veteran performers back to the small screen and make them worthy of attention for that act alone. Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell star in a sci-fi series based on last year's miniseries, which itself was based on the 1970s Lorne Greene space show.
Glenn Close stars as a police captain when "The Shield" returns later in the season.
Blind Justice (March on ABC): Stephen Bochco, the creator of "Hill Street Blues" and "Murder One," has a new show to replace his long-running "NYPD Blue." A veteran cop, blinded in the line of duty, uses his other senses to continue doing his job.
Jake in Progress (TBA on ABC): A new comedy starring John Stamos, who plays a publicist to the stars.
Oprah Winfrey brings the highly anticipated TV movie of Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God to ABC March 6. The novel, set in pre-World War II Florida, follows a woman (Halle Berry) whose mother was raped by a white man, through her journey of self discovery.
Fat Actress on Showtime and Chasing Farrah on TV Land, both in March. Kirstie Alley's much ballyhooed show about her life as a fattie in skinny-obsessed Hollywood and Farrah Fawcett's entry into the Osbournes/Nick & Jessica sweepstakes of "whose private life is kookier?" These shows are a perfect cure for anyone who ever thought being a celebrity was a great idea.