(EW.com) -- Get this: TV's frequent fourth-place broadcaster is, for the moment, the nation's No. 1 network.
NBC has been in first place the last two weeks among the key 18-49 adult demographic and Monday night delivered a spectacular knockout combo: "The Voice's" ratings climbed to rule the night, while the series debut of sci-fi thriller "Revolution" was the biggest drama series debut on any network in three years (and the biggest drama debut on NBC in five years).
The headlines follow better-than-expected debuts for two NBC comedies in their regular time periods last week -- Ryan Murphy's latest "The New Normal" and the Matthew Perry-fronted "Go On" (the latter ranking as NBC's best sitcom debut in two years). Even previews of "Animal Practice" and "Guys With Kids" have so far managed to not embarrass themselves (at least, not in the ratings).
None of NBC's new shows are loved by critics. Yet all managed to open to respectable numbers. "The Voice," while down overall compared to the start of its last couple seasons, managed to fend off Fox's Britney-buzzy "The X Factor" by 17 percent in head-to-head competition last week.
NBC's pre-season primetime performance has been ... good. It's weird to type that. So let's sit and appreciate it for a moment. Because analyzing NBC's fall right now is like watching a wind surfer heading toward a typhoon.
Launching early is a big part of NBC's fall strategy. It's partly to take advantage of the network's massive Summer Olympics promotional platform (as well as Sunday Night Football, which is a key player in the network's performance), and partly to avoid the competition. But you can't chalk up NBC's success only to having a relatively clear playing field, or to using sports promotion that's proven to be very unreliable in the past. Another early launch, Fox's "The Mob Doctor," did a face-plant last night and showed that drawing a debut audience is never automatic.
NBC's next major beat comes this Thursday, when the network re-launches its troubled comedy block. One of the remarkable things about NBC's fall schedule is how little has changed on Thursdays despite how poorly the lineup performed last season. Yet there could be some hope for a sunny headline here too.
Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker gives the premiere of "The Office" an "A-," saying the show is back on track under original showrunner Greg Daniels (who promised a creative revival for the show's final season). Though "The Office" is unlikely to beat last fall's premiere rating, it could easily post a considerable improvement over the back half of last season, when the show dropped off to series-low numbers.
Then, next week, the storm hits: We'll see more broadcast premieres than any other week of the year. "The Voice" will face CBS' powerful comedy block and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" on Monday, followed by "Revolution" going up against CBS' "Hawaii Five-0" and ABC's "Castle." "Go On" and "New Normal" will fight Fox's "New Girl" and "Mindy Project" on Tuesdays -- you get the idea.
"Will NBC have a better fall than last year? Yes," says an executive at another broadcast network. "But we don't have a clue what their fall is going to look like until everybody is up and running."
Even if NBC's recent performance is not the Peacock's new normal, the early fall returns prove, once again, there's still a sizable audience willing to take a chance on freshman broadcast shows. NBC successfully got viewers in the door. Now let's see if they stick around.
CLICK HERE to Try 2 RISK FREE issues of Entertainment Weekly
© 2011 Entertainment Weekly and Time Inc. All rights reserved.