Last night My Name is Earl returned to the NBC lineup with a new episode for the first time since January.  And, let's face it, there shouldn't have been that one episode in January because it was the Christmas episode which the network opted to delay by a month. 

Sadly for everyone involved (including me, who watched the entire hour-long episode) it was not a triumphant return.  The show lacked a crucial, essential, ridiculously important element – humor.  The show was not funny.  There were a few moments here and there that caused a chuckle, but over the course of the hour there were fewer funny moments than one can find in a good sitcom episode before the first commercial break.  It felt like the episode was just slapped together and rushed into production (entirely possible depending on the state of the script prior to the strike), and the Jeff Zucker recap/introduction didn't help matters, as it definitely made it appear as though the show ran short, that there wasn't even enough unfunny plot last night to last for an hour.

Where does that leave us?  What should we, the viewer, be expecting in this post-strike landscape from NBC? 

I'm happy you asked that, because the network unveiled its schedule for the fall this week, and the answer to the question is:  not much.  Some shows are gone (Bionic Woman, Las Vegas, and Scrubs among others), and at least one other will be entering its final season (ER).  But, critical favorite Friday Night Lights will be back as NBC was able to work out a co-production deal with DirecTV to offset their costs (the deal allows DirecTV to air the new episodes before the network does).  There will even be a spinoff of The Office on the schedule.

I know I'm going to get hammered for saying this, but, why?  The Office is fun, and I enjoy it, but the numbers aren't huge for the series, why will the spinoff be a breakout success?  I get that Friday Night Lights has a terribly devoted following, and I'm not going to say anything bad about the show, but the fact remains that very few people watch it.  Then, the network is going to air stuff like a new Knight Rider series (remember that terrible TV movie from a couple of months ago, yeah, it'll be based on that). 

I could be wrong, but I just don't see the network pulling itself out of its ratings slump with its proposed programming lineup.  I'm absolutely going to be watching the new Merlin show (yes, it apparently takes place in King Arthur's court), but not everyone out there shares my sense of geekdom.  I'll also be watching Chopping Block come summer of 2009, but that's only because I currently watch Last Restaurant Standing on BBC America, and this seems like the same show, but done in New York City.

I hope for a breakout hit for the network, goodness knows you only need one or two new shows to hit in order to be successful again, and I have a soft spot for the network I once worked at.  I just don't see where the hit is.  All the shows feel like possible niche successes, but not mass appeal ones. 

Have you seen the schedule?  Do you think I'm wrong (and I hope I am)?