Arts & Culture » Television

Loco-mation

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I’m going to breathe deeply now and type words I never thought would fly from my fingers: Damn the Simpsons! Damn them, damn them, damn them!

The little yellow-orange four-fingered freaks have made my television viewing a remote-control hell.

I’ve felt like a member of the Simpson family for years now: I was there when Maggie said her first words, when Lisa overdosed on the hallucinogenic water at Duff Gardens, when Marge took the stage in the musical Streetcar! and when Homer took cannonballs to the stomach as part of the Hullabalooza rock festival. So this hatred doesn’t come easily.

But the prime-time animated spawn of Simpson that have recently been plaguing the network dial makes it impossible to peel my ass off the couch on Tuesday nights (the one-two punch of "King of the Hill" and the new Matt Groening-helmed "Futurama").

Now, Groening, Homer and friends may have set the bar too high, and we all may suffer for it. Some folks not quite ready for prime time have gained license to clog the cable-artery with half-witted, formulaic knockoffs.

Maybe we could blame George Jetson, his boy Elroy or the Flintstones, that modern Stone-Age family, for starting network animation along the path of whacked-out meta-sitcom satire.

With the advent of cable, we accepted animated narrative series such as MTV’s "Beavis & Butt-head" and "Liquid Television" and Comedy Central’s "South Park" and "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist."

Now, a slew of animated prime-time cartoons are vying for our readied attention, on three nights and two different networks. Fox owns Sunday and Tuesday, while UPN is sneaking in its wake with a block of Monday doodlers.

While critics gush that these shows are, you know, animated and therefore hipper, you know; "for the kids" (or whatever other sloganeering old people do to embarrass themselves in front of teens and 20-somethings), it seems we now know enough to really sort the shit from the Shinola. So let’s get started:

"The Simpsons"

(Fox 2, 8 p.m. Sundays)

Modern-day prime mover. The mothership. Still works largely due to great writing and enough acceptance of sitcom conventions to tweak them to the hilt.

Laugh-out-Loud-o-Meter: 9/10

"King of the Hill"

(Fox 2, 8 p.m. Tuesdays)

Comic artists have set realism in a drawn world for decades, but television has never been quite ready to try it on prime time. Like "Roseanne" before all the gimmicks, Hank Hill and his brood live closer to the real world than most live-action programs. Poignant when it wants to be, wacky when it needs to be.

Laugh-out-Loud-o-Meter: 8/10

"Futurama"

(Fox 2, 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: It’s the year 3000. A 1,000-year-old cryogenically unfrozen renegade pizza delivery boy, an alcohol-fueled robot with a penchant for folk-singing and a one-eyed alien appear on your TV screen … "Futurama" takes the quantum leap forward into the cheesy retro sci-fi comix world while maintaining a very ’90s post-post-modern sense of humor. The kicks are seriously funny, and Matt Groening’s trademark is all over this joint. It’s beyond anything we’ve seen from him before, and showcases a kind of creativity that’s usually not allowed on network TV. "Futurama" has already generated at least 22 different fan Web sites devoted to a month-old show!

Laugh-out-Loud-o-Meter: 10/10

"The Family Guy"

(Fox 2, 8:30 p.m. Sundays)

The promotional material (and, coincidentally, the press coverage thus far) gushes over "The Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane. Pundits at glossy mags marvel that a mere 25-year-old, white, upper-middle-class, educated male could come up with this brightly-colored animated series. It references other pop culture media (movies and television, specifically), features irony-addled dialogue, is populated by broadly drawn characters (Archie/Edith, Homer/Marge archetypes) and yet manages to create "wacky" supporting characters such as a brainy, talking family dog, a toddler obsessed with conquering the world and two thus-far-unremarkable kids. Yup, pretty amazing.

It’s not that "The Family Guy" doesn’t have its moments. The device of a dog that talks back to its owners is a clever enough poke at suburban malaise (though a bit Dogbertesque, if you will). Stewie, the aforementioned innocent hell-bent for power ("Pinky & The Brain," anyone?), is entertaining enough if you let down your guard against hit-’em-over-the-head gags. But the laughs make you feel dirty, like you’re giving in to a laugh track.

Laugh-out-Loud-o-Meter: 4/10

"Dilbert"

(UPN 50, 8 p.m. Mondays)

An ounce of precaution could have saved us all a lot of headaches on this one. Anyone who reads Newsweek at least once a month could "hip" you to the fact that Scott Adams’ corporate minion has seen his pop culture day. Alas, Dilbert’s actions in the corporate (if not corporeal) world make the bondage of cubicle-land seem fun rather than exploitative. In other words, this series doesn’t go that extra mile to provide the biting criticism that could set it apart from the pack. It’s just happy to have a job at all.

Laugh-out-Loud-o-Meter: 3/10

"The PJs"

(Fox 2, 9 p.m. Tuesdays)

Remember the strange otherworldly feeling —something wasn’t quite right but you couldn’t take your eyes off it — of those "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" Christmas specials? Welcome to the foamation world of "The PJs," Eddie Murphy’s series about a projects building superintendent and the folks who love/hate him.

The show has managed to catch an occasional groove, despite a clunky beginning (and too often clunky present). While the lead characters are a bit stock, the surrounding cast of kids, crackheads and assorted would-be stereotypes are somehow, mysteriously and inexplicably endearing.

Laugh-Out-Loud-o-Meter: 5/10

"Home Movies"

(UPN 50, premieres Monday,

April 26, 8:30 p.m.)

As-yet-unseen, "Home Movies" looks like Comedy Central’s "Dr. Katz," but follows the story of the Small family a year after The Divorce. Paula Poundstone voices the mother of a "high-strung 8-year-old" boy and a bespectacled, non-verbal (she gurgles, apparently) tot. The commercials intrigue me, my TV senses all atingle. With both writerly and aesthetic crossover with the more-than-occasionally funny Dr. Katz, let’s keep the fingers crossed.

Laugh-out-Loud-o-Meter: ??/10 (mmm, mysterious…)

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