January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Dilemma: what do you do when, no matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to launch a hit live-action sitcom?

Apparently, if you’re Fox, you just give up.

Instead of filling gaping schedule holes (left by bawdy bombs like Costello and Living in Captivity) with more of the same ol’ shtick, the network is singing some serious looney tunes: In the coming months, it’ll try to launch not one but three bushy-tailed animated comedies — Family Guy, The PJs, and Matt Groening’s Simpsons follow-up, Futurama.

But it’s not just Fox that’s getting drawn in.

Faster than you can say D’oh!, animation — thanks to the fortunes of South Park, King of the Hill, and The Simpsons — is turning prime time into a many-pixeled thing. In addition to Fox’s mid-season fleet, UPN is hoping (make that praying) that it can reverse its ratings slide with comics-page fave Dilbert and Home Movies, a Squigglevision ‘toon (about a grade-school cineast) from the Dr. Katz folks. The WB is joining the fray with another newspaper staple, the welcome-to-new-parenthood paean Baby Blues, plus The Downtowners, which features three animated urban twentysomethings. ”Animation isn’t just a trend anymore, it’s becoming part of the TV landscape,” says Fox programming exec Mike Darnell. ”If you don’t break out of the pack and look different — you’re dead.”

How’s this for different: The Eddie Murphy vehicle The PJs represents prime time’s first foray into California raisin-style foamation (and by the way, it’s also the only new animated series set in the projects). ”There’s a visual quality here closer to big-budget features like A Bug’s Life and Toy Story that hasn’t been possible on TV,” says PJs cocreator Steve Tompkins. ”People are going to be excited because they won’t know what to expect.” Of course, one of the big sells of animation — with its frenetic pacing, surreal imagery, and laugh-track-free template — has always been its ability to escape those cloying live-action sitcom conventions. ”It’s just fun to be able to write stories that don’t involve a tiny cast of characters going in and out of the same doors,” explains Simpsons creator Groening, whose year-3000-based Futurama features smarmy aliens and 20th-century celebs like Dick Clark and Pamela Anderson forging on as disembodied heads in jars. ”The boundaries are far more elastic in animation.”

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