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Ellen Gray: Networks' big presents will come after the holidays

IT MAY feel as if your TV is entering hibernation this month, but things aren't as bleak as they might seem.

IT MAY feel as if your TV is entering hibernation this month, but things aren't as bleak as they might seem.

Not only does CBS have fresh episodes tonight Of "NCIS," "NCIS: Los Angeles" and "The Good Wife," but midseason - that January-April stretch when programmers send in reinforcements - is only a few weeks away.

So while you're recovering from the sugar shock of one too many holiday movies, here's a look at some of what's coming in early 2011:

Jan. 4: ABC's "V" and TNT's "Southland" return. I haven't yet watched the screeners for either one, but I'm amused by ABC's promos for its remake (which now indicate that those friendly rodent-eating aliens are up to something) and only slightly less so by the surprisingly lifelike candy rat "V" producer Warner Bros. sent with the screeners with instructions to "masticate" it and "regurgitate into mouth of offspring." (First two ingredients: corn syrup and sugar. Maybe not what I'd feed my alien-hybrid baby, but the Visitors have their own ways.)

Jan. 9: NBC presents a two-hour premiere of "The Cape," a new drama starring David Lyons as a cop who's been framed and is trying to win back his life by taking on the identity of his son's favorite comic-book superhero. Moves into its regular time slot on Jan. 17.

PBS, meanwhile, launches the 40th-anniversary season of "Masterpiece" with "Downton Abbey" (9 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 30), an eve-of-World War I miniseries from Julian Fellowes ("The Tourist") that stars Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Maggie Smith and is tailor-made for anyone who loved "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Cranford" or Fellowes' own "Gosford Park."

Showtime kicks off a two-hour block with the return of "Californication," followed by the premieres of "Episodes," a new comedy from David Crane ("Friends") and Jeffrey Klarik ("Mad About You") about a couple of British TV writers transplanted to Hollywood when their hit series is remade for American TV, and "Shameless," an actual remake of a British hit that stars William H. Macy as the often-drunken patriarch of a Chicago family of wily survivors.

Jan. 11: FX introduces the intriguing "Lights Out," starring Holt McCallany as a former heavyweight champion struggling to keep his family afloat after leaving the ring.

Jan. 12: ABC's "Off the Map," from the producers of "Grey's Anatomy," takes the "Grey's" formula - pretty doctors with sad secrets, ugly medical problems with ingenious solutions - and plops it into a scenic bit of South American jungle, where Jason George (who earned his master's at Temple), Zach Gilford ("Friday Night Lights") and Mamie Gummer ("John Adams," and oh, yeah, she's Meryl Streep's daughter) play some of the healers in an underfunded clinic.

Jan. 16: HBO's "Big Love" returns for its fifth and final season.

Jan. 17: NBC's new David E. Kelley show, "Harry's Law," premieres, with Kathy Bates starring as a corporate lawyer who loses her job and ends up starting over in a storefront practice.

Jan. 19: Fox's "American Idol" returns with new judges (maybe you'd heard?), new nights (Wednesday and Thursday) and the usual mandate: to find a singer whose name we'll actually be able to remember this time next year.

Jan. 20: NBC introduces "Perfect Couples," a sitcom about three, well, couples that sounds an awful lot like comedies CBS and ABC already have, and brings back Amy Poehler's "Parks and Recreation."

Jan. 21: Starz launches "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena," the prequel miniseries that the premium-cable channel ordered when "Spartacus" star Andy Whitfield was first diagnosed with cancer. Focusing on a period before Spartacus arrives on the scene, it stars John Hannah and the indomitable Lucy Lawless.

The ratings game

Not everyone watched football Sunday.

The Season 5 finale of "Dexter" averaged 2.5 million viewers in its 9 p.m. showing, reports Showtime, which expects that number to more than double to 6 million when those who watch On Demand, repeat airings or on DVRs are counted.

Counting in those measurements, this season will be the series' highest-rated yet, with more than 5 million viewers a week, said Showtime.

Meanwhile, the first all-female team victory in the history of "The Amazing Race" scored CBS some of the show's best ratings since October, with an average 11.7 million viewers, according to the preliminary Nielsens.

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