Fox Gets Superanimated

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Still, the most anticipated of Fox's new trinity may be Groening's Futurama, now scheduled to arrive in March. Fox has waited 10 years for a new show from the Simpsons auteur. Here's the pitch: on New Year's Eve 1999, a pizza-delivery guy named Fry falls into a cryogenics vat. He defrosts 1,000 years later in "New New York," befriends an alcoholic robot named Bender and a one-eyed cyclops chick named Leela, and resumes semi-gainful employment at Planet Express, delivering packages throughout the galaxy.

We'll buy that. Groening describes the show as "a science-fiction epic history disguised as a weekly cartoon." Says Fox's Darnell: "It was the only time that we ordered 13 episodes of a show without even a presentation." The series' bug-eyed characters and knowing satire should be comfortingly familiar, but it remains to be seen whether Futurama will be a brilliant new comic vision or, well, a warmed-over version of The Simpsons, which is now in its 10th season and still going strong.

That kind of longevity won't be easy for the newcomers to achieve. Once a novelty, the animation genre is at risk for oversaturation. The briefly mighty King of the Hill saw its ratings plummet when Fox moved it from its cushy post-Simpsons berth. The PJs in particular could be a tough sell to a public conditioned to the white-bread worlds of The Simpsons and King of the Hill. Last week a New York Times article delineated network programming's increasing racial stratification--ER and Friends vs. the Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx shows. Will whites respond to The PJs' gritty inner-city vision? For that matter, will blacks and Hispanics embrace a show whose regulars include the voodoo-obsessed Haiti Lady, a homeless crackhead named Smokey and, in Goody, a hero who is rarely without a trusty malt liquor "40" in hand? The PJs is "high risk in all ways," admits Darnell. "But it's innovative and interesting."

It's a measure of the networks' growing desperation that they suddenly find "innovative" and "interesting" to be so desirable. A typical PJs moment shows Goody approaching a forbidding fortress labeled HUD: KEEPING YOU IN THE PROJECTS SINCE 1963. And while the Family Guy pilot offers the sort of traditional laugh-track lines that lifted Tim Allen and (soon) Ray Romano into syndication heaven ("I am the man of this house, and as the man I order you to give me permission to go to this party"), it also depicts a scrawny Hitler in a gym seething at a buff rabbi, surrounded by hot babes, and God himself sitting shamefaced in a pew while a minister details his abuse of Job. "Whoa! Is that really the blood of Christ?" asks Peter after sipping from the Communion goblet. "Yes," says the reverend. "Man!" Peter exclaims. "That guy musta been wasted 24 hours a day!"

Put material like this in a live-action sitcom, and you've got the quickly canceled likes of UPN's slave-era would-be satire The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. But as The Simpsons has long since proved, the cartoon format lets you slip some piquant zingers under the cultural radar. "Eddie Murphy's central reason for doing this show," says PJs producer Wilmore, "is that puppets can say things that we can't say." This spring Fox will learn just how much America wants to hear.

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