Hooded heroes and postapocalyptic pioneers are kicking butt this season. Monkey doctors? Not so much.

By James Hibberd
Updated November 23, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

Arrow

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ABC’s country-music drama Nashville, starring Connie Britton, was supposed to be the giant new hit. Mindy Kaling‘s new Fox comedy, The Mindy Project, was expected to be a perfect companion for New Girl. And didn’t we all think NBC’s Chicago Fire would be extinguished by now? Man makes plans; fall laughs. Here’s our list of small-screen hits and misses.

Winner: NBC
Who would have guessed the magic formula for rescuing NBC was ”karaoke + apocalypse”? Thanks to The Voice and Revolution, along with trusty mainstay Sunday Night Football, NBC shot to first place this fall and is the only broadcaster to post year-over-year ratings gains (up 23 percent). Can NBC’s sunny fortunes last? Unlikely! But it’s great to see the Peacock back in the fight.

Loser: Fox
Did Fox get sucked into Fringe‘s parallel universe and trade places with NBC? The network is down 29 percent this fall, more than any other major broadcaster. Blame a softer World Series and shows like The Mob Doctor (not to mention the departure of House). Also not helping: The X Factor‘s ratings have slipped to 10.3 million for Wednesday performance shows despite a season 2 overhaul with new judges (Britney Spears and Demi Lovato) and format tweaks. Throwing in red-carpet refugees Khloé Kardashian and Mario Lopez as cohosts for the live episodes didn’t improve things either. Fox typically comes from behind to win the TV season, starting in January (when American Idol returns), and it has Kevin Williamson‘s promising thriller, The Following, in the wings. But now the network will have a steeper hill to climb.

Winner: Cable Underdogs
They’re a shady gang. Dark and profane and killing off characters left and right. Yet ethically murky antihero cable dramas such as Showtime’s Dexter and Homeland, FX’s Sons of Anarchy, and AMC’s The Walking Dead all posted record ratings this fall. In fact, Walking Dead‘s ultra-gory, rule-shattering third season is averaging 13.5 million viewers and, more impressively, a 7.2 demo rating — that’s big enough to give the broadcast networks an existential crisis, delivering more adults 18-49 than any other entertainment series on TV.

Loser: Sitcoms
The success of Modern Family and New Girl inspired networks to develop a ton of comedies this year. But there’s nothing funny about the middling ratings for NBC’s Guys With Kids and The New Normal, Fox’s Ben and Kate and The Mindy Project, and CBS’ Partners, which was just axed. (Some of these struggling shows — New Normal, Mindy, and Ben and Kate, in particular — have drawn moderate critical praise, and clearly the networks still hope they’ll find an audience.) But remember NBC’s Animal Practice? Somewhere there’s a monkey collecting unemployment, and it’s your fault, America. The only freshman-comedy star not sweating the Nielsens is Matthew Perry, whose Go On is clocking 9 million viewers thanks to a big lead-in from The Voice. Maybe the other shows can drop by for group therapy?

Winner: Men
Post-Bridesmaids, female-driven comedies like 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, Whitney, and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 were last season’s biggest trend. Now the boys are back in town, with several new shows with male stars earning full-season pickups. In addition to Go On, there’s Stephen Amell on Arrow giving The CW its biggest hit since The Vampire Diaries, Michael Chiklis and Dennis Quaid battling over Vegas on CBS along with Jonny Lee Miller solving crimes on Elementary, and those hunky firefighters (led by Taylor Kinney) lighting up NBC’s Chicago Fire.

Loser: Ratings
Pop quiz! How many people watched the fourth-season premiere of ABC’s Modern Family: 10.7 million viewers, 14.4 million, or 18.8 million? Answer: all of the above. With DVRs in 46 percent of U.S. homes, Nielsen is struggling to keep pace with changing viewer habits by releasing progressively higher sets of numbers for each show as time passes and more fans catch up. (And no, the numbers don’t include online, on demand, or streaming.) So despite Americans using high-tech innovations to watch record amounts of TV, simply counting viewers is more difficult than ever. Forget Hulu and TiVo, what we really need is somebody with a pocket calculator.

Winner: Red States
They lost the presidency, but they’re winning the cable race. The swampy down-home values of A&E’s Louisiana-based Duck Dynasty recently thumped FX’s media-elite favorite American Horror Story: Asylum on Wednesdays, while TLC’s Georgia-based child-obesity cautionary tale Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is set to roll out holiday specials and Discovery’s Alaska-set Gold Rush is striking it rich on Fridays. So which network is ready to hear our working-at-Walmart reality-series idea? C’mon, nobody wants to buy Off the Wal?

Episode Recaps

Arrow

Billionaire Oliver Queen — under the vigilante persona of Arrow — tries to right the wrongs of his family and fight the ills of society.
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