Ripping Sacred Cows
I think I say this every season, but this was the season I feel like we really hit our stride and all the seasons before this were dumb.
—Trey Parker, commentary, “Cancelled”
Consistency has never been South Park‘s strong suit. Often produced on a piecemeal basis, the show uses a streamlined computerized process. This enables Trey Parker and Matt Stone to riff on current events, for instance, in “Christmas in Canada,” the last episode of the seventh season. It has the boys journeying to Canada in order to reclaim Kyle’s adopted brother Ike from his biological Canadian parents, seeking permission from the Prime Minister.
I distinctly remember watching this episode as it originally aired during the third week of December, 2003—the big news of the week was the capture of Saddam Hussein, and pictures of him emerging from his spider hole, haggard and unkempt, were everywhere. Well, the Canadian Prime Minister turned out to be Hussein himself, grizzled and still crazy.
But I also remember feeling it was a rather poor episode, 22 minutes of lukewarm comedy built on one really good joke. As Parker and Stone recall for the Seventh Season DVD commentary, they conceived “Christmas in Canada” long before it aired, only adding Hussein at the last moment. In fact, as their brief commentary tracks reveal, the episodes created over a week or less are the most consistently funny, whereas the episodes developed with more lead time usually fall flat. The best part of “Christmas in Canada” was concocted at the last moment. It appears that Parker and Stone thrive under a kind of time pressure that almost resembles improvisation.
“Christmas in Canada” isn’t the season’s only stinker. “I’m a Little Bit Country” is one of the worst in the series’ history, focusing on the ham-fisted observation that, during the run-up to the Iraq war, the war’s supporters rallied to country-western music while anti-war activists listened to rock and roll. The whole thing is predicated on the audience’s familiarity with an old Donnie and Marie Osmond routine, and the metaphor evolves in a ponderous way that’s just painful to watch.
The season opener, “Cancelled,” is similarly unfortunate, built on an extended critique of reality shows that was old hat in 2003 and even worse now. This is a surprising flop, considering that it’s one of a number of Season Seven shows with input from TV legend Norman Lear, the creator of—among other things—All in the Family (Parker and Stone claim Archie Bunker as a direct influence on Eric Cartman). This suggests that the insular creative culture of South Park—indebted to Parker and Stone’s distinctive perspective in a way that, say, The Simpsons has never been to Matt Groening’s—is essentially opaque to outsiders, well versed as they may be in television lore and craft.
However, it would be unfair to dwell on Season Seven’s blunders—there are a few undeniable highlights here as well. “Krazy Kripples” is funny as all hell, exemplifying the show’s skill at ripping sacred cows: it doesn’t get much sacred-er than making fun of righteous celebrity quadriplegics. Even though the program makes fun of Christopher Reeve’s campaign for stem cell research, it’s genuinely affectionate ribbing, ensconced in an inspired Superman II parody. The episode is also notable for the sequence in which Timmy and Jimmy—the series’ two disabled characters—join the Crips. Because they’re, you know, cripples.
Even mediocre episodes are occasionally saved by exceptional bits of lunacy. “South Park is Gay,” satirizing Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, takes off in the final third, when it is revealed that the secret masterminds behind the plot to Queer-ify the world are the fiendish… Crab People! Parker and Stone admit during the episode’s commentary it was an incredibly dumb idea, thought up at the last minute—but that’s its charm.
“All About Mormons” offers a rather spirited exposé of the origin of the Church of Latter Day Saints, presenting the history of founding prophet Joseph Smith pretty much verbatim. If you’ve never spent any time around Mormons or had reason to learn the stories in the Book of Mormon, you might think this episode made up the silly details. But while Parker and Stone have no mercy for the silliness of organized religion, they also take great pains to point out that regardless of their beliefs, Mormons are still kinder, gentler, and more decent than almost everybody else in South Park.
It’s worth noting in light of recent events that “Mormons” follows the same template as that used in the recent “Trapped in the Closet,” a takedown of the Church of Scientology. Again, the episode presents the religion’s story, and again, the religion’s followers are presented in positive light. But whereas the Mormons are thoughtful, “Trapped in the Closet” submits that many Scientologists are unwitting dupes of a predatory organization. In the wake of “Trapped in the Closet,” Isaac Hayes (voice of Chef) quit the show, citing its “religious intolerance.” Apparently he hadn’t been paying attention just a couple years earlier, when “All About Mormons” aired.
“Butt Out” is set against the backdrop of California’s sweeping anti-smoking legislation, as it extends to South Park, via a battle between anti-smoking activist Rob Reiner and the tobacco industry. Parker and Stone’s initial target—busybody legislation—is certainly legitimate. There’s lots of room for discussion as to whether anti-smoking laws are morally or legally tenable, and Parker’s commentary for the episode touches on this:
I just don’t think that every time you get annoyed by something or irritated by something, you should run to the government and try to make a law. It’s the perfect tyranny of the majority… [which is] supposed to be what our Constitution protects us from.
The problem with “Butt Out” is that while it goes to great lengths to present the case against anti-smoking legislation (the well-meaning crusaders are more than a little hypocritical and classist), it portrays Big Tobacco in a strikingly sympathetic light, and so muddles the point. Parker and Stone frequently use South Park as a platform for their libertarian views, and usually, it doesn’t detract from the show’s centrist, common-sense attitudes. But this version of the tobacco industry omits its well-known history of abuse and lying.
While it may not sit well with their liberal fan base, Parker and Stone’s libertarianism is a fundamental ingredient of South Park‘s populist politics. I would not ask them to abandon the polemical elements, but I would encourage them to consider their targets more judiciously. It’s one thing to hold no cows sacred, but another to play by two sets of rules. If they honestly consider well-intentioned but wrongheaded anti-smoking legislation to be a greater evil than the tobacco industry, they are flirting with the worst aspects of libertarian Republicanism, i.e., pro-corporate shilling. It’s admirable to champion the rights of disenfranchised smokers, and maybe if they had stayed on that message, the episode wouldn’t have left such a bad taste in my mouth.