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Four new dramas top Fox frosh

Returning skeins paired with a slew of fresh fare

NEW YORK — Fox execs are putting the finishing touches on a fall lineup featuring at least four new dramas, two fresh laffers and a sketch/variety skein — and significant changes on most nights of the week.

But as has been the trend so far during this week of upfront announcement, Fox also will do everything it can to maintain some semblance of stability by keeping familiar faces in anchor positions. Returning series “Boston Public,” “That ’70s Show,” “Cops” and “Futurama” are expected to continue to kick off Monday, Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday nights, respectively; there’s also a chance “Dark Angel” could return to Fridays at 8 p.m., where it began last fall.

As for new fare, the Fox frosh crop includes two family comedies: The “Wonder Years”/”Malcolm in the Middle” hybrid “Oliver Beene” and the Randy Quaid starrer “The Grubbs.” Both will be part of a three-hour Sunday night comedy block that will kick off with “Futurama” at 7, followed by “Oliver Beene,” “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Grubbs” (Daily Variety, May 14).

Move takes Fox back to its early days as a network, programming comedies from 8-10 p.m., including successes such as “Married … With Children.” Indeed, Fox had comedies at 9 p.m. every year until 1996, when it moved “The X-Files” into the timeslot.

Putting “Malcolm” at 9 p.m. exposes the skein to some risk: Hit laffer now will face off against everything from “Alias” and “Angel” to “The Sopranos.” But Fox execs apparently felt comedies were the best way to compete against a slew of dramas on the other nets.

New Sunday sked also is great news for “King of the Hill,” which bowed to great numbers but has been victimized over the years by constant sked shuffling. Nonetheless, animated laffer still has a strong core following and critical acclaim and will only benefit from the added exposure of an 8:30 p.m. slot. A test airing of the skein in the slot produced strong Nielsens a few weeks ago.

As expected, Mondays will remain David E. Kelley night, with “Boston Public” returning for its third season at 8 p.m. and new femme lawyer skein “Girls Club” replacing the canceled “Ally McBeal” at 9.

Tuesdays also are expected to remain familiar, with “That ’70s Show” staying at 8 p.m. and “Grounded for Life” moving from Wednesdays to Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. The critically hailed “24” returns at 9 p.m. and will stick with its current hour-at-a-time format. One idea floating around for next season has the show picking up a year later, with Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) now in the White House and Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) enlisted on a special mission for the new prexy.

One of Fox’s boldest plays comes on Wednesday nights, with “Bernie Mac” expected to move to 8 p.m. — directly opposite ABC’s Damon Wayans starrer “My Wife and Kids.” Both skeins feature strong, African-American father figures as centers.

“Mac” likely will be followed at 8:30 by “The Cedric Show,” a sketch/variety skein featuring Cedric the Entertainer. Then at 9, look for Fox to go after men in a big way with the turbocharged “Fastlane,” a high-octane crime drama from producers McG and John McNamara.

On Thursdays, Fox could stunt with movies and specials until after the baseball playoffs wrap. Then the net likely will go with light reality programming from 8-9 p.m. One half-hour under consideration is “Meet the Marks,” a hidden-cam skein from Vin Di Bona Prods.

At 9 p.m., Fox likely will go after family viewers with the drama “Septuplets.”

Biggest question mark remains Friday nights, where Fox execs still are deciding between three shows: “Dark Angel,” the Joss Whedon-penned “Firefly” and the mystery drama “John Doe.” Both “Firefly” and “Doe” have snagged series orders.

Strong midseason contenders include “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” “The Pitts,” “Time Tunnel” and “Keen Eddie.” Current Fox skeins not on any skeds circulating Tuesday include “Undeclared,” “That ’80s Show,” “Titus,” “Greg the Bunny” and “The Family Guy.”