I have a sneaking suspicion that Tori Spelling thinks the generous helpings of self-deprecating humor in her new VH1 sitcom So NoTORIous — starring her as her — make the show critic-proof. Maybe she figures the blood sport of Tori-bashing — about her looks, her talent, her love life, her last name — is so ingrained that if she joins in with her own jabs, she’d miraculously defuse all detractors. “Think I have an oversize head?” she might say. “Well, now I’m making a joke about it, so there!” It’s an extreme version of the wink-wink genre of inside-Hollywood comedy that made The Larry Sanders Show a Hollywood-tweaking masterpiece and Saturday Night Live a self-pricking way station for big names with baggage.

But Spelling is forging her own ground. She’s turned what assuredly were hurtful years of feeling like a show-biz freak into friendly TV fodder that relieves viewers of the need to point while they snicker.

Am I just finding another way to criticize Spelling, who, let’s be honest now, was no better or worse than her fellow 90210 actors — and certainly more believable as a virgin than Jason Priestley as a student under 30? Well, yes and no. The peculiarity of So NoTORIous is that upon viewing this cheaply made but colorful, not unamusing show, the star-directed insults — which, incidentally, are mostly thrown at her by the actors playing her friends — are sometimes cruel, sometimes funny, but usually involve a careful positioning of how Spelling really wants people to see her. The laughs inevitably revolve around perception, not her “reality,” so by showcasing Spelling as a warm, home-minded, financially independent (stop laughing) person with a circle of friends and a smile for everyone, the one-liners at her expense can then feel like pokes instead of stings.

For every woe-is-me dig at the crappy women’s-channel movies, or her designer-outfitted dog, or her inability to get a guest spot on Will & Grace, there are fans waving at her, a chum calling her a national treasure and gay icon, or a clunky sales line like: “But I’m really low key, and I rarely hang out with other actors.”

Sometimes, she keeps the record-straightening ambiguous, for comedy’s sake, as when her doting childhood nanny (Cleo King) playfully indicates her tits are fake.

Tori: “These are mine.”

Nanny: “That’s right. You pay for something, it’s yours.”

As for her parents, the gag with daddy the nighttime soap magnate is that, whenever Spelling visits home, Aaron is a speaker phone voice à la Charlie from Charlie’s Angels, whose idea of making his daughter happy is the gift of series regularity. (About the minister-patriarch WB series Seventh Heaven, we hear him coo paternally, “Maybe a nice Jewish girl should move in with the Camden family.”) In any case, he’s the sweet one.

Another ambiguity in Spelling’s TV version of her life is whether Loni Anderson’s bubble-lipped, neglectful, hard-driving ice queen of a mansion mom — always shown in flashbacks as the root cause of Spelling’s behavioral quirks — is named “Kiki” because she really isn’t supposed to be Candy Spelling .?.?. or really is supposed to be Candy Spelling. (Gossip has circulated that neither of Spelling’s parents are happy, but Aaron’s no PR dummy. Prediction: Look for that exclusive “We love each other and it’s all show!” dual interview with Loni and Candy on The Insider sometime in the future.)

Questions of truthfulness and artificiality aside, Spelling does look like she’s having a blast fronting her own Sex and the City–meets–Curb Your Enthusiasm clone/hybrid, and ultimately that may be the thing that counts, especially when you’re the boss and you’ve hired people to write jokes about you, and you’ve hired actors to deliver them to your face. (Is this the most elaborately sadistic role-playing therapy ever?)

And while she’s not the most naturalistic of line-readers, Spelling has kind eyes, an almost holistic sweetness, and a funny way of playing nervous embarrassment that leads me to believe she might have been boning up on old Mary Tyler Moore episodes. Ultimately, a show like this isn’t going to be able to sustain umpteen jokes about its tabloid star being hapless and misunderstood. But if D-list novelty gets you in the door in Hollywood, Tori Spelling — the proverbial Hollywood question mark — certainly has that going for her. She just needs to remember that the dunk tank at the fairground gets old pretty quickly.

There are real dunk tanks in the first episode of King of Cars, A&E’s unscripted series about a Las Vegas used-auto dealership: Customers who buy a car or truck at Towbin Dodge get to put their salesman in the wet seat. The gimmick is brilliant, a little turning of the tables after the car-buying process, an experience most people feel is the equivalent of taking a slime bath.

On television, car lots are generally either the province of obnoxious local commercials or broadcast news exposés. So it’s no wonder that a fast-talking sales god like Towbin Dodge honcho “Chop” — that’s what he does to prices, see — would agree to a series that paints his workplace as a merry, laugh-filled, fun-loving ant farm where hard-working guys put food on their kids’ table, and customers are treated well and get the super-awesome cars they want.

But based on the first two shows, the Glengarry Glen Ross–like desperation to close deals can’t be hidden, nor the sense of chipped-away fortitude in buyers who gradually back away from their self-made promises.

“We don’t stick to our guns very well,” says the sheepishly smiling dad who claimed he wouldn’t go above $300 a month for the souped-up family car, then signed at over $400 a month, paying more down than he wanted to, also. The last time I bought a car, the experience was singularly unpleasant — each exasperated declaration, in response to my negotiating stubbornness, that the sales staff only cared about my needs felt especially odious — and so it may be impossible to watch King of Cars as entertainment without seeing the customers as victims in the clutches of smiling cutthroats. The linebacker-size “Chop” is a likeable-enough figure, and he seems to know what will motivate the teams, like a one-day sales contest between two floor managers to determine who won’t have to wear a showgirl outfit for the infomerical they’re shooting that night. But even this good-natured competition turns sour when a lagging Tony calls his father down to the dealership for a hard sell, then turns to one of his sales team member’s relatives. Anything for a sale, anything not to wear a dress: not masculinity’s finest hour.

So NoTORIous | VH1 | Sundays, 10 p.m.

KING OF CARS | A&E | Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

LA Weekly