Is this the future of network television? Fox is sure hoping it is. One of the few breakout shows last year was Comedy Central's scabrous South Park, and the year before, Fox had its own success with that animated paean to redneck Texas, King of the Hill. Now the genre that seems to offer the quickest shortcut to countercultural chic is becoming more popular than ever. The three start-up networks (Fox, UPN and the WB) have scheduled seven new prime-time cartoon series for this year, and more are in the works. "Animated shows stand out from the pack," says Tony Krantz, CEO of Imagine Television, one of the producers of The PJs. "They look extraordinary, and the brand of humor can be quite striking."
No one is showing more gusto than Bart Simpson's home network. Between now and March, Fox will launch three high-profile animated sitcoms: The PJs, newcomer Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy, and the long-awaited Futurama, from Simpsons creator Matt Groening. "People expect us to be different," says Mike Darnell, the wire-haired programming impresario responsible for Fox's "shockumentaries" (World's Deadliest Swarms, When Good Pets Go Bad). "They can find live-action sitcoms everywhere else. They don't have to come here for them."
The problem for Fox is that viewers haven't been coming for much at all. The fall season was a disaster for the network, which swiftly shelved three of its five new series. Only That '70s Show and Brimstone have a shot at renewal. That dismal record cost entertainment president Peter Roth his job. Doug Herzog, the executive who brought the South Park gang to Comedy Central, was named his replacement in November but is only just now taking the reins.
In the interim Fox has literally gone back to the drawing board. Darnell and Fox chairman David Hill insist they didn't set out to become the Animation Network, that the confluence of three new cartoon programs is sheer serendipity. Groening has been developing the millennium-timed Futurama for years, and The PJs was signed up months before MacFarlane arrived with Family Guy. But it's also true that The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Darnell's shockumentaries score best with young male viewers, who are much coveted by advertisers but increasingly hard to tear away from their Sony PlayStations. Fox is betting that an even more aggressive cartoon slate will increase its appeal to that demographic mother lode.
First out of the blocks (it debuts this Sunday before settling in on Tuesday night following King of the Hill) is The PJs (shorthand for "the projects"), the brainchild of Eddie Murphy and perhaps the riskiest of Fox's new cartoon ventures. Murphy sold Imagine on his idea two years ago. The result is a visual tour de force. The puppeteers of the Will Vinton Studios, best known for the California Raisins, have created a colorful 3-D universe of intricately animated clay figures expressive enough to almost pop off the screen. Making sure they land in viewers' hearts is the mission of a writing staff led by executive producers Larry Wilmore and Steve Tompkins (two former stand-ups who met while writing for In Living Color). They've made Goody, voiced by Murphy, a gruff but endearing tour guide through a community of eccentric black and Latino characters. Their stories, from the attempted rehabilitation of a local porn theater to Goody's battle to save his beloved new front door from the ravages of spray-paint-wielding gang-bangers, take a warmhearted but hard-eyed look at contemporary urban life. The show looks gorgeous. The milieu is fresh. The scripts are funny. Oh, and did we mention Eddie Murphy?
Yet The PJs isn't even the hottest new show on Fox's January animation schedule. The honor of debuting in the post-Super Bowl slot goes to Family Guy, the creation of Seth MacFarlane, a hitherto unknown artist who was just a year out of the Rhode Island School of Design when Fox shrewdly plucked him from the Hanna-Barbera animation stables. "Stunningly clever" is the way Darnell describes MacFarlane's initial pitch, at which the wunderkind performed all the voices himself. "Two weeks later we ordered 13 episodes, and Seth became a star," says Darnell. A seven-minute presentation reel the network took to last May's "up-front" screenings for advertisers, he adds, "was far and away the funniest thing we showed."
Network executives are supposed to say things like that, but an early 50-page script for the Family Guy pilot makes it clear that MacFarlane, at just 25, is a prodigiously talented writer. Family Guy, which is set in a sleepy Rhode Island city, falls squarely within the medium's venerable archetype of familial dysfunction, which is to say that Mom, Lois, is a saint; Dad, Peter, is a boob; the kids are mutants (baby Stewie, for instance, is an evil genius plotting world domination); and the voice of reason is Brian, the family's talking dog. The early plots are standard-issue situation comedy (Dad gets laid off, Mom mounts a chaotic production of The King and I), but in the pilot script, at least, MacFarlane's pell-mell wit recalls The Simpsons' fevered early-'90s creative peak. Punch lines spill out furiously as the show spirals into multilayered flashbacks and inventive fantasies (when Peter wonders whether to lie to his wife, for instance, the angel and the devil that duel cunningly over his shoulders turn out to have angels and devils dueling over theirs).