With an end to the WGA strike on the horizon (fingers crossed!), networks are addressing the many questions they face in developing a strategy for their shows' return to air
Credit: Michael Desmond

How I Met Your Mother creator Carter Bays has a really huge problem. ”It’s been a long strike,” he admits. ”I can barely remember all our characters’ names, much less what we were planning to do with them. Is our show the one with Jim and Pam? If so, we’ll probably have them hook up. Awkward!”

Actually, Carter, that would be The Office — but hey, it’s great to hear you talking about getting back to work. As EW went to press Tuesday night (Feb. 5), buzz that the 13-week-old writers’ strike would soon end hit a fever pitch after a marathon negotiation session between the moguls and the Writers Guild of America brass. Finally, Hollywood is beginning to imagine a scenario that could salvage at least part of the 2007?08 TV season — including Feb. 24’s Oscar ceremony.

Should the labor dispute that’s cost $1.9 billion to date and put 11,000 people out of work end as early as next week — a distinct possibility at press time — the prevailing wisdom says it will take anywhere from two to four weeks to resume production on existing comedies and dramas. Grey’s Anatomy could start filming by early March and complete roughly four or five new episodes before the season ends in May. Lost faces a similar situation. Ugly Betty exec producer Silvio Horta thinks he can wrap four more episodes by then — but with some much-needed tweaks: He had mapped out a 23-episode arc that now has to be whittled down to 17. ”We would definitely need to change storylines,” he says. ”I know where we’re going to end up, but there’s going to have to be some major readjustment to get there.”

Established comedies like CBS’ Two and A Half Men and How I Met Your Mother can get up and running quicker than most first-year series, which is why both sitcoms should be able to complete up to seven installments. Things look just as promising for newer programs like Fox’s Back to You and ABC’s Samantha Who? (which could both air up to nine new episodes). Three pre-strike episodes of Samantha remain unaired and could ostensibly return in the series’ original plum post?Dancing With the Stars slot sometime after the hooferfest returns in mid-March. First-year drama Gossip Girl aims to be back on the CW in late April, and could complete its 22-episode first season by running original hours through the summer.

NEXT: What’s on tap for Heroes and 24.

All this operates under the assumption that the networks would even want the lion’s share of their programs back before May. For instance, NBC could delay the return of Heroes until fall since creator Tim Kring thinks he can only complete three more episodes this season. That’s barely enough time to relaunch the series with a new story arc entitled ”Villains” (which they had planned to do with the second half of the season before the strike began). ”With a show like Heroes that’s so strongly serialized, and given what we wanted to accomplish with the new storyline, to come back with just three episodes could be creatively dangerous,” he says.

If NBC’s low-rated but critically beloved Friday Night Lights gets a green light, five to six new installments could be shot by season’s end. One line of thinking goes that new shows like NBC’s Chuck and ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money and Pushing Daisies would benefit from a relaunch in September rather than returning for a measly three- or four-episode run. As for the seventh season of Fox’s 24 — well, who knows? Eight episodes are already in the can. It could begin airing this fall, but more likely, Jack Bauer won’t be kicking bad-boy butt until the winter of 2009.

Of course, if the prospect of finally being able to watch something other than Don’t Forget the Lyrics! has you pulling the Cristal out of the fridge, you might want to hold off before you pop the cork. Nothing can be decided until the WGA officially puts down its picket signs. After those promising weekend talks, WGA negotiating committee chairman John F. Bowman cautioned his 12,000 members that ”many significant points have yet to be worked out,” and the union said it would schedule membership meetings on both coasts before it would consider calling off the strike. Fortunately for fans, many of those writers seem eager to pick up their pencils again. ”I’m going out of my mind,” says Horta. ”I want to just get back to work, already!”

Additional reporting by Jennifer Armstrong, Jeff Jensen, Vanessa Juarez, Whitney Pastorek, Jessica Shaw, Dan Snierson, Tim Stack, and Tanner Stransky