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.''