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Fox doubles up on animation, hoping lightning strikes twice

In network TV, experiments are rare. The industry is all copycat and safety-first. True experiments usually come out of desperation.

Back in the day, when the Fox network was new and trying hard to establish itself, The Simpsons was an experiment and one so successful that, of course, Fox eventually produced an entire Sunday night line-up of animated programs. All rely on the fact that a certain style of humour is possible in animation, a humour that just cannot be delivered in live-action sitcoms.

That was then. The experiment led Fox to conquer the Sunday prime-time hours. Now Fox is trying to figure out a way to fill Saturday nights with destination-TV for younger viewers. Specifically male viewers in their teens and twenties. For the usual reasons, advertisers are anxious to reach that demographic. Something to do with men being creatures of habit and, one supposes, if they start using a shaving gel when they first start shaving, then they stick with it for life. Same goes for cars and beer. Or so the theory goes.

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Anyway, Fox wants to reach those young male viewers during the late-night Saturday hours when hardly anybody is watching TV in the first place. NBC's Saturday Night Live has owned the late slot on network TV for years. Some years ago, Fox tried to muscle into the territory with the sketch-comedy series Mad TV, a sort-of anti-SNL with more hip humour, parodies, music and recurring cartoon sketches.

Eventually Fox gave up on that. Now it is making a curious bet: It's banking on all-animation for late-night Saturdays with an experiment it calls "Animation Domination High-Def."

Axe Cop (Saturday, Fox, 11 p.m.) is the first part of the hour and, well, it's not The Simpsons. If your taste runs to stoner-humour rooted in an adoration of comic-book heroes, then yes, it's a hoot. But it's not going to have many viewers over the age of eighteen howling with laughter. However, if you think your enjoyment might be heightened by the fact that it's in high definition, then, by all means, knock yourself out.

What the rest of us get is an insight into what passes for high-grade humour for young fellas. Our hero is a middle-aged cop, big mustache and all, who turns into an axe-wielding super-hero after dark. He seems to only eat birthday cake and, wouldn't you know it, zombies keep turning up and trying to thwart him. There's a lot of insider humour that only seems very funny to 14-year-olds who consume a lot of wacky animation on their computer screens.

High School USA! is the other portion of the animation wing-ding (the length of the shows vary, so I can't say exactly when it airs in the hour between 11 and midnight) and it's just ridiculously bad. Aiming to be a parody of the Archie comics, though never admitting to it, it attempts to get naughty with the high school drama genre. It never seems more than silly. Here, the high school girls do the sexy things that they never do in the Archie comics and a guy who is outed as a bully just gets more angry by being outed. Some kind of feel-good, do-good teen genre is being upended here, but to what purpose is unclear.

On both shows you will hear some familiar voices. Giancarlo Esposito, Vincent Kartheiser, Mandy Moore and Megan Mullally are used to voice characters, but it's unlikely that Fox's animation experiment will rank highly on their résumés.

This animation experiment is drawn to your attention because it's new, nifty to some younger viewers and a peculiar twist in weekend TV programming. Just brace yourselves before you indulge.

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Also airing this weekend

Unforgettable (Sunday, CBS, CTV, 9 p.m.) is actually new. CBS cancelled the cop show in 2012 and has now revived it. The gimmicky premise is that the lead cop (Poppy Montgomery) remembers everything about everything, except the day her sister was murdered. However, it is less gimmicky than it is soulful, as many viewers saw it. Now they have it back to enjoy, if, of course, they haven't forgotten it.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Sunday, CBC NN 10 p.m. on Passionate Eye) is a repeat of the powerful and angry HBO doc about sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. Made by Alex Gibney, it focuses on the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused boys at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee, Wisc. Once exposed, Murphy's defence of his actions was bizarre. The stories told by his victims – actors are used to articulate their words – are astonishing, and Gibney points an accusing finger at the entire Church hierarchy.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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