As animated concepts go, it was not the most promising of ideas: a meditative epic starring a laconic hero owing more to Homer’s ”Odyssey” than Hanna-Barbera, featuring minimal comedy and a near-complete absence of dialogue. Well, short attention spans be damned, because ”Samurai Jack” — the lushly animated tale of a time-and-space-traveling hero who battles a shape-shifting nemesis named Aku — has become an unlikely breakout hit for kiddie cabler the Cartoon Network.
Despite the show’s out-there premise, Cartoon’s head of programming Mike Lazzo jumped at creator Genndy Tartakovsky’s brief proposal. ”He said, ‘Hey, remember David Carradine in ‘Kung Fu’? Wasn’t that cool?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s really cool.’ That was literally the pitch,” says Lazzo, who admits that selling a skeptical Turner Entertainment Networks prez Brad Siegel on the idea was a challenge. ”The first thing he said was ‘It’s a little slow, isn’t it?’ Then he showed it to his kids. He walked in the next day and said, ‘Never mind.”’
Since debuting last August, ”Jack” has chalked up double-digit rating increases in its Friday-at-7 p.m. slot among kids and triple-digit improvement among adults. The series attracts an average of nearly half a million grown-ups and 1.1 million kids (with a two-to-one boy/girl ratio). With new episodes debuting March 1 (as well as a March 19 video release of its 90-minute premiere), ”Jack” appears poised to slice and dice its way into the animated pantheon alongside Cartoon’s other crossover phenom ”The Powerpuff Girls.”
”Jack” came about when 31-year-old Tartakovsky, creator of Cartoon’s boy-genius smash ”Dexter’s Laboratory” and a onetime producer-director of ”Powerpuff,” decided he was ”burned out” on comedy and disenchanted with clichéd action fare. ”I’d always complained about action cartoons, so I thought I’d better walk the walk,” he says. ”I thought, What do I want to see? And samurais are one of my favorite things.”