The Watcher - Boonie call

Months after Dave Chappelle's highly public — and yet still rather mysterious — estrangement from his lauded "Chappelle's Show" on Comedy Central, his influence on the airwaves is as vital as ever. Chappelle specialized in a confrontational yet uproarious willingness to air American taboos over skin color and, in effect, made it OK for TV comedies to say the N-word. Racial tension spices up the nostalgia of Chris Rock's UPN sitcom "Everybody Hates Chris" and provides the grist for nearly every joke on the Cartoon Network's newest late-night Adult Swim show, "The Boondocks" (11 p.m. Sundays), which debuts Nov. 6.

Based on the controversial comic strip by Aaron McGruder, "The Boondocks" depicts the culture clashes when two African-American boys — politically active Huey and pop-impressionable Riley (both voiced by Regina King) — move with their irascible Granddad (John Witherspoon) to a white-bread suburb. Though the comic strip tends to be static — every time I see it, Huey seems to be watching TV and making comments a la "Doonesbury" — the Cartoon Network show opens up the premise, which turns out to have drawbacks as well as advantages.

Freed of the constraints of daily newspapers, McGruder cheerfully butchers sacred cows, even tweaking icons of the Civil Rights Movement. On the premiere, the boys attend a tony party and Huey realizes his dream of speaking truth to power, i.e., rich white folks. Whenever he airs his theories (why Ronald Reagan was the devil, for instance), his listeners only coo, "He speaks so well!" Racial condescension tastes even worse than outright hostility.

The second episode, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," mistakes mean-spiritedness for provocation. Granddad's love affair with a prostitute makes for some cutting, plausible observations about the sex industry, like the stylish procurer known as "A Pimp Named Slickback." But the animation leers over the scantily clad "ho" and all but rejoices in her humiliation, making the episode feel like straight-up misogyny.

With surprisingly bland and ugly animation, "The Boondocks" shows equal potential for going in two directions. It could become as sharply observed as the best "King of the Hill" episodes or turn out to be as shrill and unsubtle as the weakest "South Park" episodes. Either way, "The Boondocks" will be more than a quiet blip on late-night cable. With Atlanta's prominent billboard-and-bus-stop marketing blitz, "The Boondocks" explodes racial stereotypes in our own back yards.