By Ken Tucker
Updated July 11, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT


GARY THE RAT 10:30 p.m.

STRIPPERELLA 11 p.m. (Thursdays, TNN)

TEEN TITANS 9 p.m. (Saturdays, Cartoon Network, premieres July 19)

When I first heard that director Spike Lee had sued and temporarily prevented TNN from changing its moniker to Spike TV (a rebranding that signals its new mission to service horndog young men), I became outraged: Why, that lawsuit had resulted in canceling a televised kickoff party at the Playboy Mansion! One of the inalienable rights of basic cable is being able to indulge one’s inner Bill Maher without actually risking exposure to a communicable disease from Hugh Hefner’s grotto.

The lawsuit itself is goofy: Why would the director of ethnically diverse, politically thorny movies think that the former Nashville Network — once home to country videos and Dukes of Hazzard reruns, and currently to wrestling — is trading on his good name? No one is going to confuse Do the Right Thing with TNN’s new batch of animation like Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon (a revival of the gleefully vulgar ’90s series), Gary the Rat (about a lawyer transformed into a large rodent voiced by Kelsey Grammer), and Stripperella (featuring Pamela Anderson as an ecdysiast/superhero).

Regarding the Playboy stuff, I need not have fretted. It turns out that Stripperella offers more titillation than a year’s supply of airbrushed bunnies. The series is credited to 80-year-old Marvel Comics pioneer Stan Lee. Who knew the cocreator of The Hulk and Spider-Man was such a randy old coot, so eager to offend? Stripperella features bared breasts and lines like ”Let’s see some titties!” (Hey, maybe TNN could get revenge on the litigious filmmaker — and trade on Spike and Stan’s common surname — by christening itself Lee TV?) Anyway, TNN sent out the pilot and a later episode, which featured really ooky jokes about a younger stripper whose father brings business clients to the series’ ”gentlemen’s club,” the Tender Loins. (Dad tells daughter to ”strip good” and watches along with the rest of the droolers.) A subplot about an animal rights organization, ”Animals Need Universal Support, or ANUS,” is, given Anderson’s interest in the plight of furry creatures and her Baywatch/Tommy Lee home-movie past, I suppose, right up her alley.

And if you groaned at that pun, the official pilot has a plot about ”exploding breast implants” that turn women into ”literal bombshells.” (”You’ve been booby-trapped!” cries our heroine.) But Anderson acquits herself with more aplomb than seems inhumanly possible — her warm, unironic line readings, combined with the exaggeratedly drawn curves of her real-life exaggeratedly curved body, achieve the desired sexual provocativeness. To put it as bluntly as the show demands, Stripperella is a success as soft-core cartoon porn.

By contrast, in the early ’90s, wild-man writer-animator John Kricfalusi created Ren (the scrawny, mean-eyed Chihuahua) and Stimpy (the simpleminded, rotund cat) to break different barriers of good taste, and Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon is a cascade of mucus, saliva, vomit, and — hello, Stripperella! — back-door poo-poo exit jokes. (Let’s just say the premiere gives the phrase ”rat’s ass” new pungency.) Kricfalusi’s style is ingeniously disgusting, an animated throwback reminiscent of director Frank Tashlin’s 1940s-era cartoons. And Kricfalusi indulges the weirdly asexual-yet-homosexual relationship between Ren and Stimpy. (Comic-strip aficionados will recognize that R&S’s unfulfilled attraction is a cruder echo of the one between George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse.)

As for Gary the Rat — well, it stinks. Lawyer-as-rat? Old. Voice by Kelsey Grammer? Too much like the silky villain of his marvelous Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons. Add the cheap, stiff animation, and Gary deserves immediate extermination.

If you’re looking for animated fare less vulgar than TNN’s, check out the Cartoon Network’s new Teen Titans, based on the DC comic about Robin and other adolescent heroes. Unlike The WB’s nicely broody Superman and Batman cartoon revivals, the Teen stories and animation aren’t compelling for anyone over the age of about 11. Which is just about the age Stripperella seems to think a girl should start getting fitted for her first G-string…

Stripperella: B- Ren & Stimpy: B Gary the Rat: D Teen Titans: C