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AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE: Master Shake, Frylock and Meatwad, with neighbor Carl, right, have it their way

What Do 18-To 34-Year-Old Men want? This question has plagued 18-to 34-year-old women for years, but today the folks who program TV are asking it with increasing urgency. Two months into a lackluster fall season, the Nielsen TV-ratings agency reports that young men are deserting the networks in droves. Some networks have charged that Nielsen's numbers are dodgy, but that hasn't prevented a lot of anxious talk about what TV can do to please America's young dudes.

One smaller network, however, may have found an answer. Young men, it turns out, want to see superheroes arguing cases in court. They want giant fighting robots. They want talking French fries. They want, that is, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim (Sunday to Thursday, 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. E.T.), a block of bizarre animated comedy and action shows that regularly draw more men under 35 than do David Letterman and Jay Leno — despite airing on a basic-cable channel best known for Powerpuff Girls.

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Adult Swim's roots go back to 1994, when Mike Lazzo, senior vice president of Cartoon Network (which, like TIME, is part of Time Warner), was asked to create an inexpensive, late-night show for adults, who were tuning in to the network in larger-than-expected numbers. Thus was born Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, a talk show whose host is an old Hanna-Barbera superhero, sitting behind a desk, bantering with an alien bandleader and asking such bewildered, real-life celebrity guests as Donny Osmond what superpowers they have.

Space Ghost became a cult hit, and in 2001, Cartoon Network created the Adult Swim block of cartoons around it. The original shows (it also includes acquired Japanese anime toons) follow the same principle: lunacy on a low budget. On Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a trio of superpowered fast-food products pursue get-rich-quick schemes (luring pilgrims to a "sacred oil stain" in the neighbor's driveway) and avoid crime fighting (except, for instance, when they catch pot-smoking aliens tapping into their TV cable). According to co-creator Matt Maiellaro, budget constraints posed a problem in animating Meatwad — a lovable, dim-witted lump of hamburger who has the power to change his form. "We could only afford to have him animate into three different shapes. But," he says, "it worked for his character. It would never occur to Meatwad to change into something besides a hot dog."

Indeed, Cartoon Network's comedies may be richer for being poorer. Too many network comedies with vast staffs of writers hit the same note of competent lameness. With a few writers at most, Adult Swim's comedies have something that millions of dollars can't buy According to Jim: an original voice. Home Movies — a sweet, off-kilter comedy about neurotic eight-year-old film buffs, their dysfunctional families and their alcoholic soccer coach — relies heavily on improvisation to create true-to-life dialogue; executive producer Loren Bouchard recalls how voice actress Melissa Bardin Galsky came up with an off-the-cuff line about how her character's pencil eraser smelled like strawberries. "Most of us," Bouchard says, "don't remember when we had erasers that came in food flavors."

If there is a theme to these shows — with their world-weary kids and less-than-super heroes — it's casting a jadedly funny, grownup eye on the memories and characters of childhood. On Harvey Birdman: Attorney-at-Law, a superhero turned lawyer defends cartoon characters — for instance, he represents Scooby-Doo's Shaggy for drug possession. The Adult Swim sensibility caters perfectly to the Gen X — Gen Y brand of nostalgia: affectionate derision for the junk of one's youth. It's like a restaurant that fashions three-star meals out of Doritos and Ring Dings.

Adult Swim's success amid cable's smaller audiences may not be directly translatable to the big networks; its most popular programs, reruns of Futurama and Family Guy, first appeared on Fox and were canceled. But it suggests that those missing young men want surprises, not 15 more cop procedurals. Will the floundering networks take the lesson? Sure. When French fries talk.