Gather round children and let an old man tell you about a channel called The Nashville Network.
No, not TNT.
Stay with me, children, and let me tell you of a tale… from the Time Before the Before Times. The Nashville Network was a good ol’ boy channel that was popular in the South. It used to air some country music — back when they had these short five minute snippets that we used to call “music videos” — and other staples of country living like NHRA drag racing and supercross. Hell yeah. This was when the channel was actually GOOD. The channel also showed a hell of a lot of Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas re-runs, which were a staple among several of my college dorm mates.
Eventually The Nashville Network realized that were going to hit the big time when they got the rights to air WWF (which would one day be renamed WWE… but that’s the tale for another day). This network was now too big for Nashville, boys! The “N” got changed from “Nashville” to “National”.
And as it turns out… that was boring. What kind of shows would you expect on something called “The National Network”? It sounds like your place for dry political punditry, not wrasslin’ and championship bull-riding and reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation. What the channel needed was a new name and a new angle. One centered around the fact that they were airing the highest rated weekly show on cable.
Something that said … THIS is the first network for MEN.
Part of Spike TV’s MAN strategy (“mantegy”?) was an adult animation block. Adult animation was the new hotness in 2003. Adult Swim was taking the country by storm. The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park were going strong. But we’re not trying to court smelly teenagers or families here. We want MEN. Lots and lots of MEN. So what does Spike TV go with?
First, we bring back John Kricfalusi and his most famous creations, Ren & Stimpy. John K. was developing a pretty big fan following thanks to the dawn of the internet. He was just coming off a series of web-only cartoons: The Goddamn George Liquor Program and The Weekend P-…. you know what, I can’t finish that. He seemed to have one stipulation, though. The new Ren & Stimpy has to be horribly offputting, and not actually funny. And that no one who is of good mental health will actually like it. Like there’s an episode where Stimpy becomes pregnant with Ren’s baby, but when it’s born it turns out it’s a poop, but they treat the poop like a baby named “Little Ricky.”
Secondly, we get Stan Lee to create a new superhero character for us. Only this is a network for MEN. And what do MEN like? MEN like strippers! Specifically, Stan Lee likes strippers! And so we got Stripperella, a superheroine with a secret identity as Erotic Jones, who is an exotic dancer voiced by Pamela Anderson.
The show did feature some nice animation, and we got to watch a lot of awkward interviews with Stan Lee during the promotional phase. There was also a genuinely creepy villain that could change his face by affixing a host of organs being grown in his lab. There were also a lot of blurred naughty bits… which, I understand, were unblurred when the show aired internationally.
And finally, there’s the show where a lawyer turns into a giant rat.
You know… for MEN!!!!!!
What does a network for MEN look like? Spike TV has got the manswers! (Manswers, airing late night on Spike TV.) Between thesr three shows, we get a portrait of the elements that compose a Spike TV Man: obsession with sex (Stripperella), gross humor (Ren & Stimpy’s “Adult Party Cartoon”), and the dream of being a rich asshole (Gary the Rat). Which, incidentally, is probably what thy thought of early 2000’s wrestling fans. Seriously, check out the WWE content those years. Prove me wrong.
Gary the Rat began its life as a Flash cartoon from the nigh halcyon days before YouTube existed. There’s footage of the original site online. There was a mini-game you could play while you were waiting for the episode to load. You had to stick your arm in a rotating fan to get cheese for points. Remember those days when you had to wait for a three minute cartoon to load on a dedicated website? Pepperidge Farm remembers. Any, the one that aired on Spike doesn’t stray far from its Flash animation roots. In fact… the original one might have looked better in some respects. The Flash cartoon included shadowing on the characters, whereas the Spike show renders everything flatly. This may have been a sacrifice made when the production when from a three minute clip to a full 20-minute show.
Also notable: check out the intro screen (the first image I included in this article). Gary the Rat is placed right in front of the Twin Towers. The Flash cartoon was made in 2000. The show debuted in a post-9/11 world on Spike in 2003. The world of New York in the aftermath of 9/11 is explicitly mentioned. While Gary the Rat Original is simply going with the flow of 90’s Corporate America, Gary the Rat 2003 must comment on how everyone is too nice to each other and he needs to figure out how to exploit that. In the span of three years, he has become a
man rat displaced from time.
The series was created by Mark and Robb Cullen, whose most prominent credit on IMDb is as writers on the Kevin Smith film, Cop Out. Hoo boy.
Our titular character is Gary Andrews, a man-sized rat voiced by professional Beast, Kelsey Grammer. Andrews turns into a rat one night and he has no idea why. He suspects that it’s because of a life filled with poor moral decisions. He is, after all, a lawyer and he pursues self-serving cases that bolster his reputation. He doesn’t care if he knows his client is morally in the wrong. He is there to win.
Turning into a rat, though, complicates matters substantially. If atoning for his sins is the only thing that can turn him back into a human, he finds that doing good is a impossible task. You see, his law firm chooses to retain his services even after his transformation. They expect him to win, though. If he doesn’t, then he’s fired. Losing his job means being out on the streets. Before he’d be a giant rat with a lucrative job. Stripped of his job, he’s just a giant rat. So even if he wanted to do good, he has no choice but to continue being a greedy scumbag.
I’m sure there’s a moral buried in there somewhere. One mulled over since the beginning of time by philosophers like Socrates, Augustine, and Jeffrey Winger. That said, Gary isn’t entirely convinced that his transformation is due to his lifestyle and blames it on an undiagnosed medical condition. And honestly… it makes the most sense. So many people on this show are assholes, and none of them turned into giant rats. Gary’s boss, for example, keeps pushing him toward morally dubious cases. Frankly, Gary does do a lot of good deeds that go unrewarded.
But then again… that’s the MAN philosophy that Spike TV is going for, isn’t it? Your boss, your rivals, your neighbors, ex-girlfriends. The idea that you may be scum, but so is everyone else. So to win you have to be the biggest scum on the block. Besides, Gary is smart, erudite, and cultured. And let’s face it… attractive in that Disney Robin Hood way.
Shouldn’t such a person be a winner in life? One who deserves to be richly lavished upon? In a weird way, Gary the Rat may be the most insidious of the Spike cartoons because it comes closest to being the most incel.
It’s easy to miss that, though, partly because It’s very difficult to totally hate a character that is voiced by Kelsey Grammer. There’s a part of you that wants to see him win even when he’s playing Bart Simpson’s greatest enemy (next to Dr. Demento). He sounds smart and sophisticated. Witty and erudite. Listening to Grammer is like getting caramelized pecan Brie poured into your ears.
Speaking of which… cheese turns out to be one of Gary’s biggest weaknesses. The transformation may not have affected his pipes, but it does affect his behavior. Gary now has cheese delivered to his doorstep (the expensive frou-frou varieties). He also gets a giant hamster wheel and a big water bottle. Garbage starts to smell delicious. He also has the ability to talk to rats, which actually gives him access to a pretty extensive informant network.
Gary attracts critics, particularly the snooty neighbors at his apartment. They can’t stand the constant cheese smell, and the presence of a giant rat has driven their property values down. Gary, though, has the law on his side and threatens to litigate every person in the apartment if they even try to evict him. The transformation also greatly affects Gary’s sex life. He ends up lurking around furry websites in desperation. The show, though, is inconsistent on his attractiveness to women. Some are put off by the rat thing and consider it bestiality, some are using him, and some are definitely interested. So… just like every other man. Gary doesn’t ever seem to need a relationship. Yet he finds he often needs to be in one to maintain appearances with potential clients.
And then there’s the exterminator — hired by one of Gary’s snooty upper class neighbors — who only wants to kill Gary once and for all. Bugz is a constant presence on the show. He is the B-plot to whatever dilemma of the day Gary is facing. Gary needs to win a big case for a tobacco company… but uh, oh, Bugz is also trying to kill him! Bugz always misses though, and usually ends up killing an innocent bystander. I suppose these moments are supposed to be hilarious, but to me they’re the show’s biggest bummers.
Well, maybe second biggest. One episode has a subplot where Gary is envious of a celebrity who is making all the news in New York for his outlandish humanitarian deeds. That celebrity? Kevin Spacey.
Guess you came out on top for that one, Gary the Rat!
Gary the Rat boasts a host of celebrity guest voices: Brooke Shields, Ted Danson, Wayne Knight, Joe Pantoliano, Michael Keaton, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Robert Goulet playing himself. (He gets caught in a man-sized mousetrap in the first episode. The man loves his cheese!) One episode features a Frasier reunion of sorts — which, in our quarantined world, is all the rage nowadays! Two of Gary’s fellow apartment dwellers are TV brother David Hyde Pierce and TV dad John Mahoney. Even the music had me a bit star struck. It’s composed by none other than Devo’s own Mark Mothersbaugh. His soundtrack is made of appropriately piano-heavy lounge music.
Gary has a mother who, for the most part, is the unheard conversationalist who Gary talks to on the phone. Even though Gary is passive-aggressive towards her, one character observes that they have a pretty swell relationship… outside of the health issues. He finds he cannot function in his court cases unless he gets a call from his mother… his “pep talk,” as it were. It’s his weird “save the cat” moment. When he does rescue his mom, she — now voiced by Betty White — tells him that she IS proud of Gary. (Gary can’t return the affection, though, being the Rat that he is.) He may heap passive-aggressive verbal abuse on his mom… but he still opted to rescue her rather than to win a court case.
The series ends appropriately enough with Bugz finally succeeding in his quest to murder Gary Andrews. He lobs a bomb at Gary while sitting in the electric chair after having murdered several people in a previous failed attempt to kill Gary. A pile of rubble falls on Gary, and he turns human again.
So why did he transform into a rat in the first place? Like the mystery of how mold can both be a disgusting effect of moisture under the sink and a key component in delicious blue cheese, we’ll never know.
Of the Spike cartoons, Gary the Rat may have escaped the most unscathed. Spike was unhappy with the direction John K. Was taking Ren & Stimpy and they cancelled the Adult Party Cartoon halfway through its run. Stripperella was sued by a stripper who claimed that Stan Lee stole her idea of a stripper superhero when she divulged her idea during a private dance session. Spike would only try once more to do an original animated series: 2004’s This Just In!, a cartoon about a conservative news reporter. The WWF would be forced by the World Wildlife Fund to change its initials and would eventually leave Spike TV’s orbit and return to its original benefactor, the USA Network. Even Spike TV disappeared. Two years ago, it was renamed the Paramount Network.
It’s now TV … for everyone?
Gary the Rat got to finish out its season, at least. It’s probably the most successful show that started off as a Flash cartoon. Then again, that is the curse. No one is bound to remember the show again either. It will lie there, buried under the rubble, loved and mourned by no one.
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!
Apologies for some of the screenshots. The show is available on YouTube, but the guy who did it probably doesn’t have permission from the show’s creators. Thus, he applied a weird spotlight filter to each episode. Believe it or not… I think this added element actually improve the show’s visuals.