Rarely in recent years has a quirky program raced out of the starting gate faster than Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle.

The net knew it had a winner on its hands and chose to launch the sitcom in January — away from the clutter of all the other season premieres during the most watched month of the season and just hours after one of Fox Sports’ highly rated pro football playoff games.

The strategy worked: “Malcolm” bowed with Fox’s biggest opening sitcom ratings since “The Simpsons,” which serves as its lead-in.

For the season, it ranked No. 1 among all primetime programs in teens and was the No. 1 new show among kids and second most popular among total viewers. And in the key advertiser demo of 18-49, it ranked fifth among all comedies and second among men in that age bracket.

Not bad for a series with no big-name stars and that was rejected a season earlier by UPN.

The New Regency sitcom, starring Frankie Muniz as a grammar school genius who must keep his chaotic kin in check, seemed to strike a chord among viewers looking for a more realistic appraisal of family life. It also stars Jane Kaczmarek as Malcolm’s mother, Lois, and Bryan Cranston as his father, Hal.

The series, which was widely hailed by critics from the outset, re-cently scooped up four Television Critics Assn. nominations, includ-ing comedy and new program.

For a struggling Fox, “Malcolm” couldn’t have come at a better time. The network hadn’t developed a big live-action comedy hit in years, but in “Malcolm” it figures to have a Sunday staple for years to come.