They dwell in a different dimension and enjoy a more forgiving physics, but our counterparts in the cartoon continuum can't seem to keep their puffy little paws off our cultural rifts.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — They dwell in a different dimension and enjoy a more forgiving physics, but our counterparts in the cartoon continuum can’t seem to keep their puffy little paws off our cultural rifts.

The latest example came tonight when one of TV’s longest-running and best-written shows, Fox’s animated “The Simpsons,” had a gay coming-out of a longtime character: Marge Simpson’s sister Patty.

Anticipated for months and delivered in the backdraft of today’s widely watched Daytona 500 race, the sweeps-targeted episode is certain to be among the highest-rated of the show’s current season and probably among the top 10 in the show’s 16-year history.

While some conservative groups had growled in advance over the episode, most of the attention had been focused on which of the show’s rich cast of characters would be outed.

Waylon Smithers, right hand man to power czar Mr. Burns? No, too “duh,” as he already lives on the gay side of town and frequents gay bars.

How about bar buddies Lenny and Carl? No, too boring. They lack flair. Crusty the Clown? Well, he does have style.

No, it fell to the cigarette-voiced Patty, who explained she fell for professional golfer Veronica after getting beaned with her club.

Alas, it didn’t work out. Veronica turned out to be a man in LPGA clothing — he was unmasked at the altar, betrayed by a protruding adam’s apple.

Gay characters are ho-hum on human TV nowadays, and gay-themed shows like “Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” perform to favorable ratings and premium advertising rates.

Even homosexual cartoon characters have found roles, including a teacher in the adult-themed “South Park” on Comedy Central.

And as a nation, we seem able to read sexuality into the strangest characters. A potatoish Teletubby and bug-eyed SpongeBob SquarePants have been screened by the nation’s gaydar of late.

There’s no question that public reaction is still hot at times on the issue of homosexual acceptance on mainstream television. PBS found itself in a mini-controversy this year when some of its affiliates aired an episode of the children’s show “Postcards from Buster” focusing on children who live with their lesbian moms.

But mostly, the nation seems to be over the novelty of gays on TV, though not necessarily over the satirical point the episode examined: same-sex marriage in America.

Fox broadcast a parental advisory before the show and in some cities, local news shows did segments exploring the “controversy.”

“Did ‘The Simpsons’ go too far, or are local conservatives overreacting?” asked a promotional insert for the 10 p.m. newscast on a Charlotte TV station that aired repeatedly during the show.

Oh, please.

The plot: Springfield legalizes same-sex marriage to help its sagging tourism industry. Homer becomes a mail-order ordained minister and turns his garage into a wedding chapel.

Patty admits to sister Marge that she’s always been gay and can’t believe Marge didn’t realize it earlier. “You could see it from space, Marge,” says Patty.

After Marge manages to accept her sister as a lesbian, she interrupts the ceremony to reveal Veronica is really a man, because she doesn’t want Patty to be betrayed.

Patty dumps him, despite his loving pleas. “I’m into girls,” she says.

Marge embraces sister Patty and her sexuality. “Just because you’re a lesbian doesn’t make you less of a bein’,” Marge says, pure Pollyanna.

And there it was, that oddity of oddity on network television: family values winning out in the last act.