Thursday night, once dominated by NBC, has become one of the most competitive nights on television.
The Peacock, which had a monopoly on viewers throughout the 1990s, forfeited its lead by airing too many look-alike, cruddy sitcoms during the "Friends"-"Seinfeld" glory years and then annoyed loyal fans of TV comedy by plopping reality show "The Apprentice" into the 9 p.m. hour in 2004.
These missteps allowed first CBS (with "Survivor" and "CSI") and then ABC (with "Ugly Betty" and "Grey's Anatomy") to usurp NBC's lead.
Last year, NBC finally got its act together, returning to the traditional four-comedy block from 8 to 10 p.m. and airing four series worthy of the "Must-See TV" brand once employed by the network. Now NBC is calling it "Comedy Night Done Right," which, in a rarity for TV slogans, actually has the virtue of being true.
Hospital comedy "Scrubs" (9:30 p.m., Oct. 25) returns to the lineup for its seventh and final season, joining "My Name Is Earl," "30 Rock" and "The Office," whose seasons are already under way. The little comedy that could has been shuffled around the schedule more than just about any other series and sometimes it would come back only as a midseason replacement.
As the previous season ended, it appeared that J.D. (Zach Braff) and Elliot (Sarah Chalke) were about to become romantically involved again a few years after breaking up. The new season begins at the same spot and then fast-forwards to the ramifications of decisions they each make.
It's a less zany episode than "Scrubs" has been in recent seasons, more grounded in reality with fewer flights of fancy. It should still be an enjoyable half-hour for the show's loyal fans, but I do have to admit that after this run of 18 final episodes ends, I won't be sad to see "Scrubs" go.
Every series has a terminal lifespan and by recycling the "will-they-or-won't-they?" plot, it's obvious that "Scrubs" is ready to be put to bed.
"This show is not Sam and Diane. It's not 'Cheers,"' said executive producer Bill Lawrence in July. He said the show got away from the J.D. and Elliot story but chose to return to it as a way to depict two dysfunctional people prone to screwing up their respective relationships. He said the show's writers are arguing among themselves over whether or not to end the series with J.D. and Eliot as a couple. He's cognizant of the anger viewers felt over "The Sopranos" ending, which he, personally, enjoyed.
"Maybe I'm wrong to feel the sense of pressure," he said. "We're just going to try and, I don't want to say give people what they want, but hopefully resolve the show in a way that people are satisfied if they want that couple to be together, and people are satisfied if they don't want them to be together."
"I'm a TV junkie," said Lawrence, who directed the season premiere. "I used to watch all (the Thursday night shows). It used to be a (expletive) sandwich. There used to be, like, three good shows and one giant piece of doo-doo. This is actually four good shows."
And even though the ratings for the lineup routinely land NBC in third place in total viewers, Lawrence said in the current TV environment, those ratings no longer define ultimate success and failure. Today a low-rated program may be a smash success online, as a download or on DVD, finding new ways to make money beyond just advertising dollars in prime time.
"I honestly believe that in the modern landscape, all four of these shows are successes and will all make lots of money for the companies that own them," he said.