[23 March 2010]
PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor
Yes, South Park is still going. In fact, 12 years after it premiered to virtually instant success, the show is still thriving as one of Comedy Central’s most viewed original programs and is all set to begin its 14th season this month.
Watching South Park: The Complete Thirteenth Season reveals that, in many ways, this show is still at the top of its game. Unlike other long-running, sometimes-controversial animated shows with mass consumer product empires built behind them like the The Simpsons or Family Guy, the series has not changed much since it settled into its groove around the time of South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. Yet each new episode still feels fresh and part of the zeitgeist, a quality those other shows have been steadily losing since their heydays.
That said, familiarity is a huge draw for South Park fans. At this point we all know what kind of confusion will ensue when we learn that Butters, South Park’s most innocent and malleable denizen, is starting a “kissing company” as he does in “Butter’s Bottom Bitch”, but watching him visit a Pimps’ Convention to learn the lingo of his profession is still extremely funny. Likewise, the fact that audiences know a character like toxic, fame-chasing Eric Cartman so well allows creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to write comedic moments which wouldn’t be possible with a less-realized character, like the surreal and sublime sequence in “Whale Whores” where the “big-boned” child sings Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” (with his trademark vocal inflections) while anti-whale crusaders blow up Japanese ships onscreen.
When it comes to staying interesting after years on the air, however, one of the primary reasons South Park has maintained a certain vitality is the continued presence of Parker and Stone. On the one hand, the fact that they have never stepped back and allowed the show to become a well-oiled machine means that the pacing of certain episodes can be a little off and that not-funny-the first-time cheap shots at random targets (they just will not stop ragging on Chipotle in “Dead Celebrities”) continue to cripple otherwise funny episodes. It also means that rather than getting jokes written by writers desperately trying to ape the humor they loved when they grew up watching the show (ahem, Simpsons), we get the real-deal straight from the source.
Brilliant episodes like “W.T.F.”, in which the South Park lads decide to start their own professional wrestling conference but run it like a day-time soap opera, obviously spring from the childhood obsessions of Parker and Stone, and it’s hard to imagine anyone but the people who originally created Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman putting together a scenario which so perfectly suits their characters. There’s still something charming about the way the two do the voice for virtually every new character on the show, without ever actually changing their voices.
The shows other great asset in staying relevant is its method of production. Episodes of South Park are put together on computers rather than animated traditionally, which allows the average episode to be produced within a week or so, as opposed to the six months a typical Fox animated show would take to reach completion. This means Parker and Stone can respond pretty quickly to current events, which allows South Park to compete with the new kids on the comedy block: the bloggers and the makers of YouTube parodies, which sometimes seem to be posted before a major event even occurs.
A good season of South Park is a satirical scrapbook of the year it aired in, and Season Thirteen is no exception, whether it be episodes about big 2009 issues like the resurgence of right-wing talk radio and the success of Avatar (“Dances With Smurfs”), piracy off the coast of Somalia (“Fatbeard”) or the insane number of famous people shuffling off their mortal coils (“Dead Celebrities”). South Park even beat the internet comedians at their own game when a scene from “Fishsticks”—in which rapper Kanye West bids farewell to humankind in order to accept his “true” nature as a lover of male sea creatures, as “Gay-Fish”, a pitch-perfect parody of West’s “Heartless”, plays in the background—became one of the biggest viral videos of the year.
Unfortunately, though, Season Thirteen is not a complete success. One of its faults isn’t new, and concerns the writers’ frustrating stances (or lack thereof) on certain issues. Parker and Stone, through their elementary-school aged characters – have always advocated pluralism when examining cultural issues, and the constant assertion that some sort of middle way is the best solution to every problem may work when it comes to something like overspending vs. oversaving, but seems more of a cop-out when approaching problems like Japan’s questionable whaling activities.
The only time South Park really does take a stand this season is (in “The F Word”) to proclaim that the word “fag” should be acceptable as long as it’s used to describe people the writers don’t particularly like (in this case, people who ride motorcycles), and that everyone should stop being so damn sensitive about something that’s just a word after all. They may have a point about people not allowing language to have too much power over their lives, but it’s an odd choice of cause, especially for a show that previously urged white people not to use the “N word”, no matter how non-racist their intentions, because at the end of the day, they’ll never understand how the history behind that word affects African Americans.
Also, despite being less stale when compared to its peers, the show is beginning to show some signs of its age. The most obvious sign of this is the lack of impact the character-specific episodes have compared to examples from past season. While the Cartman episodes (“Fatbeard”, “Dances with Smurfs”, “The Coon”) and the Randy Marsh episodes (“Margaritaville”, “Pinewood Derby”) are enjoyable enough, they don’t come close to approaching the past glories of “Passion of the Jew” or “Something You Can Do With Your Finger”. It’s a shame, because there’s plenty of life left in the citizens of South Park, and hopefully Parker and Stone will find more novel adventures for them to embark on in the upcoming season.
As a season, South Park’s Thirteenth is well worth watching. Is it worth owning on DVD? Big fans of video streaming, Parker and Stone have made every season of the show available at South Park Studios, meaning fans can watch any episode they want with only the mild-inconvenience of the occasional Comedy Central ad. The DVD package is physically attractive, but the DVDs themselves don’t include anything extra besides a few deleted scenes. Then again, if you’re one of those people (and there are many) who view South Park as an ongoing work of satirical art at its best, you can probably see the value of owning a piece of it yourself.