Television is humming a new toon. Lots of toons, in fact.
Let Disney stockholders whine how “Hercules” hasn’t proved as heroic at the box office as expected. On television, animation is showing unprecedented muscle.
Range, too. From the cuddlesome “Rugrats” on Nickelodeon to the racy HBO romp “Spicy City,” from the nutty calm of “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist” to the delectable gross-out of “Beavis and Butt-head,” toons are all over the TV landscape.
The lone new hit on any broadcast network last season? Fox’s animated spoof of suburbia, “King of the Hill.”
The most talked-about upcoming series? The animated “South Park,” a sort of “Peanuts” with a potty mouth that premieres in August on Comedy Central.
This month, the Cartoon Network, epicenter of animation’s movers and shakers, has added two new half-hour series to its weeknight lineup: “Johnny Bravo” and “Cow & Chicken.”
In addition, the channel is unveiling new segments of its popular “Dexter’s Laboratory.”
For children and adults alike, toon time is at 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The Cartoon Network is, of course, a virtual mecca for all manner of animated species. Owned by Turner Broadcasting System (and hence by Time Warner), its vast library accommodates everyone from Bugs Bunny to Scooby Doo to Fred Flintstone.
But the network is also a breeding ground for new toons.
“We’re ramping up on the original programming side,” says Cartoon Network president Betty Cohen.
She explains that the network has taken its cue from bygone days, when cartoons were produced not in wholesale lots for series television but, one by one, to appear at movie houses as a warm-up for the feature.
“If the character in a cartoon was funny, another cartoon would be made with that same character,” Cohen says. “This way, a character could be tinkered with and evolve over time.
“We figured if we really want to create enduring characters, not just flash-in-the-pan series, we should consider that same approach.”
It seems to be working. In fact, the network-commissioned “World Premiere Toons” development effort spawned the prototype cartoons that grew into the “Johnny Bravo,” “Cow & Chicken” and “Dexter’s Laboratory” series:
With his buff physique and strawberry-blond pompadour, the title character of “Johnny Bravo” (aired each Monday) cuts quite a figure. Unfortunately, women agree the figure is zero.
That is, Johnny is a washout with the ladies, who are clearly unimpressed by his Elvis-like swagger, shades and “ooooh, mama” come-on.
At the same time, Johnny’s doltish grandiosity makes him lovable to viewers. After all, they can enjoy his bluster and rebuffs from a comfortable distance.
Tuesday brings “Cow & Chicken,” which proposes that a scrawny, irascible chicken could be big brother to a 400-pound cow who, despite her preadolescence, has a bodacious udder that’s always getting in the way.
These unlikely siblings are the children of human parents and attend public school with their human chums. Oddly enough, the fact that they are farm animals never comes up.
Wednesday, “Dexter’s Laboratory” presents new tales of the gnat-size boy genius with the unaccountably Slavic accent and his bandy-legged big sister Dee Dee. Back for a second season, “Dexter” last year was the Cartoon Network’s highest-rated series.
Thursday, “What a Cartoon! Show” highlights previously aired “World Premiere Toons” shorts.
And Friday, you can see it all again in a two-hour block of repeats.
The Cartoon Network’s nightly showcase, launched two weeks ago, helped prompt a TV Guide issue celebrating “Animation’s New Wave.”
Meanwhile, the hip West Coast magazine Buzz has proclaimed “Toons Rule!” In Good Housekeeping, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan hailed “The Simpsons” as “the realest show on TV.”
And a New Yorker column declared that “cartoons on TV have become the form in which we permit ourselves to enjoy poignancy and sass and human weirdness.”
No wonder. Cartoons are immune to actors’ egos and exempt from nature’s physical laws.
Cartoons are also liberated from the rut entrapping most TV comedy. They are a zero-base endeavor: Each toon originates as blank frames where the lines, colors and motion can be introduced according to the artist’s vision.
By contrast, before you even come up with an idea for your new sitcom, you’re likely to be saddled with a star, a living room and a laugh track. With all the preconditions, how could most sitcoms not be like every other?
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