Watching their best new pilot, "That '70s Show," you almost have to wonder whether Fox executives have breathed in too much secondhand smoke.
How else do you explain why the network is premiering the nostalgic family comedy this Sunday night (8:30, Channel 29), when millions of potential viewers will still be enjoying summer barbecues and not paying attention?
Realizing that, the Big Three networks are waiting another month before they premiere their new shows.
Last month, Fox executives said they will rerun the pilot of "That '70s Show" in September and also are planning a strong promotional campaign during the network's October coverage of the World Series.
That could diminish the harm caused by the early launch, but a low-rated premiere certainly won't give "That '70s Show" the kind of buzz that new series need nowadays to survive.
Peter Roth, the president of Fox Entertainment, may have set an unofficial record for the use of "love" -- as in "I love this series" -- in July.
He showed his love by putting the series, by Buffalo native Mark Brazill and "3rd Rock From the Sun" producers Terry and Bonnie Turner, in the coveted post-"Simpsons" time slot.
That's the time period formerly occupied by "King of the Hill," which Fox has boldly moved to 8 p.m. Tuesday in hopes of jump-starting what has been a deadly night for the network.
Moving "King" opposite NBC's "Mad About You" and ABC's "Home Improvement" had better work, because without a boost there Fox could be in trouble before midseason.
As a rule, the ratings for series in their second season, such as "Ally McBeal," improve. But there is some sentiment -- even within the cast of "Ally McBeal" -- that the sophomore series about a single woman's romantic and professional conflicts may have difficulty sustaining its off-kilter premise.
Then there's "The X-Files," the series that went from cult hit to big-screen movie. Though the summer film from Chris Carter was embraced by many movie critics, television critics were less kind. Many felt betrayed by the movie's excessive cartoon quality -- meaning the series may no longer get the critical pass it has received over the years.
In a sense, the big-screen movie could do to "The X-Files" what David Letterman's performance as Oscars host did to his late-night series: Take it out of the must-see TV category.
Finally, there's Carter's other series, the low-rated "Millennium." Fox seems to have renewed it either out of loyalty to Carter or because it believes that by 2000, millions more viewers will flock to it. The big news this year is that lead character Frank Black's wife, played by Megan Gallagher, has exited.
The little faith that Fox seems to have in most of its fall series was exemplified by the amount of time it spent this summer giving critics a sneak peek at its animated midseason series from Eddie Murphy ("The PJs"), Matt Groening ("Futurama") and 24-year-old animator Seth MacFarlane ("Family Guy").
The unintended message was that Fox was saving its better stuff for midseason, perhaps with a promotional push during the network's Super Bowl coverage.
With that it mind, here's a capsule look at its fall -- or should I say summer -- series.
"Holding the Baby," 7:30 p.m. Sunday: Most likely the season's first casualty. It's the first of the season's cliched series about clueless single fathers raising their young children with their dim brothers around. It stars Jon Patrick Walker as an ad executive who has to bribe a would-be receptionist and graduate student (Jennifer Westfeldt) to baby-sit his 6-month-old son.
The plot and dialogue are predictable. (The brother eats baby food and suggests leaving the kid alone with a "Barney" tape on the VCR.)
Of course, there are jokes about bodily functions, in a pilot that is such an insufferably unfunny dinosaur that viewers will have to be bribed to return for a second visit.
"That '70s Show," 8:30 p.m. Sunday: Most of the attention has focused on the politically incorrect marijuana scene in the pilot -- which is laugh-out-loud funny and doesn't actually show anyone smoking.
It may disturb moralists, but it's unlikely to upset or influence teens of today, who, after all, have been given "Just Say No" lectures since grade school and know all about parental hypocrisy.
At its core, this is a a warm-hearted, nostalgic family series set in Wisconsin in 1976 that can be enjoyed on several levels.
It could be a little funnier. But what's not to like about a series that skewers "The Brady Bunch," celebrates Todd Rundgren and pokes fun at perms and '70s wardrobes?
The lead character, 17-year-old Eric Foreman (Topher Grace), is hardly a revolutionary or a rebel. If anything, he's a little dull. The show's energy comes from his eclectic group of friends -- the sexy next-door neighbor, the gullible friend, the pampered friend's girl, the conspiracy theorist and the foreign exchange student who acts like a refugee from "3rd Rock."
And there are Eric's parents, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp), who give their son good advice and also realize that he won't usually follow it. In other words, they're not the typical cliched parents of '60s and '70s TV.
For that reason alone, this show is a keeper.
"Costello," 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8: Fast-talking, foul-mouth-talking, forever talking stand-up comedian Sue Costello stars in the story of her life. She's a barmaid in South Boston who dispenses her worldly -- and wordy -- view of life to family and customers in the conservative section of town. To better herself, she tries to learn a new word such as "capacious," "obtuse" and "ubiquitous" every day.
The dialogue makes ubiquitous use of the words "a--," "bitch" and "whore."
In the pilot, Sue drops her longtime boyfriend for a chance to make something of herself.
"Sue is a little off," explains her father, played by Dan Lauria of "The Wonder Years."
You have to give Costello credit for having an attitude. But her crude philosophy quickly gets quite taxing.
In a word, "Costello" is tasteless.
Still, there's something about Costello that makes you root for her show to calm down.
"Brimstone," 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6: Peter Horton ("thirtysomething") is a prominent detective, Ezekiel Stone, who was killed on duty after he killed his wife's rapist. He has been given new life and hope for redemption by the devil, with a catch: He has to catch 113 vile souls who escaped in a mass jailbreak. They all have supernatural powers and can be defeated only by having their eyes -- "the windows of your soul" -- gouged out.
The first of the 113 comes to New York and masquerades as a priest who sexually abuses young boys. Not exactly an original idea.
Horton uses his minimalist acting skills well and the dark photography is mood-setting. But there already is enough darkness on Fox with Carter's shows. "Brimstone" seems better suited to being a Tuesday movie or a series that one would expect to be syndicated for late-night than it is a network prime-time program. It probably will be dead in the water by December, if only because it's hard to imagine a Christmas episode.
"Hollyweird," 9 p.m. Thursday (no air date yet): No preview was available and Fox didn't even have an interview session with creators Shaun Cassidy and Wes Craven. With Fox promoting so many midseason shows, that was truly weird. Fox says it will air after the baseball playoffs, but it could be in so much trouble that it may never air.
"Living in Captivity," 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11: The comedy produced -- not written -- by Diane English. It's about life in a suburban area primarily seen through the eyes of a novelist with writer's block (Matthew Letscher) who looks a little like Matthew Perry of "Friends."
Set in a "Truman Show"-like enclave, the pilot dealt with the racism that the area's first black family experienced when it moved in. But creator Tom Palmer, English and producer Joel Shukovsky have said that that episode gave the wrong impression about the series' aims. The series about three couples isn't as much about racial differences as the uniformity of suburban life.
Dondre T. Whitfield ("Between Brothers," "All My Children") is the most recognizable and most appealing member of the cast. But Lenny Venito probably will get the most attention playing a broad character, Carmine "The King of Mufflers" Santucci, who inspires comparisons to Archie Bunker.
The pilot has its share of funny, politically incorrect and crude moments (it has a "Costello"-like number of "crap" references) and makes liberal and effective use of contemporary music. But with the producers essentially warning against reading too much into the pilot, this is the Fox series that is most difficult to gauge.