[27 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
While it may seem sacrilegious to say it, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s cut-out animation anarchy, otherwise known as South Park, has finally surpassed Matt Groening’s cartoon family chaos, The Simpsons, as bellwether for the current cultural zeitgeist. Previously, the long running Fox prime time series had this scatological little Comedy Central satire on the ropes. Heck, South Park even referenced it’s rival’s supposed superiority in an episode entitled “Simpsons Already Did It”. But now, after 13 seasons and ten times as many shifts in the social, political, and celebrity stratum, the adventures of four precocious boys and their podunk backwards Colorado mountain town are only getting better.
Effortlessly balancing the treasures and traumas of growing up in the new millennium with parodies so pointed they almost redefine the spoof, South Park is indeed sublime. Whether it’s taking on the full fake dramatics of professional wrestling (“WTF”) or recognizing the negative cosmic consequences of cheating at the “Pinewood Derby”, Parker and Stone pack every episode with as much up-to-date and carefully observed humor as possible. Granted, the show still wallows in the kind of borderline bad taste toilet trash (“Eat, Pray, Queef”) and self-aggrandizing sensationalism (“The F Word”) that’s bound to get attention, but for the most part, we witness insanely nuanced comedy clashing directly with a jokey juvenilia.
Take the 13th season installment simply known as “Pee”. Our four leads - fat kid Cartman, normal boy Stan, resident Jew Kyle, and hoodie-wearing poverty case Kenny - decide to spend the day at PiPi’s Splash Town, a well known water park in the area. Little do they know, but an overabundance of customer urine is undermining the facility’s ability to filter the water, leading to a nasty natural disaster ala Roland Emmerich. Similarly, Cartman spends an afternoon “helping” handi-capable pal Jimmy write some gags for his fledgling stand-up act. Their off the cuff “Fishsticks” quip earns them national recognition, as well as the egotistical wrath of that humorless rap prima donna, Kayne West.
Perhaps the best example of this all or nothing approach comes in the classic, crude “Whale Whores”. Starting with a direct lift from the Oscar winning documentary The Cove, the gang learns that, for some horrific reason, the Japanese really hate dolphins. From Sea World styled theme parks to NFL stadiums, these Tokyo terrors arrive, weapons in hand, to malicious murder every friend of Flipper they see. Suddenly, without warning, the episode spins into a pitch perfect lampoon of the ultra-lame Discovery Channel series Whale Wars. Kyle wants to do something to stop the marauding Eastern hordes. All his newfound friends can do is talk tough…and then slowly slink away.
South Park is truly brilliant at how they build their references into their narratives. Who else could find a way to mesh Glenn Beck with Avatar (“Dances with Smurfs”), real pirates with those of Disney’s Caribbean (“Fatbeard”), or a year filled with famous deaths and the lingering allure of Michael Jackson (“Dead Celebrities”) with the current trend in TV “ghost” programming. Through it all, Parker and Stone use the obvious to make points that might often be missed by the overwhelmed viewer. In “The Ring”, for example, an angry Mickey Mouse beats the Jonas Brothers, reminding them that the only reason they’re famous is because of Uncle Walt’s world’s ability to sell homogenized sex to underage girls.
Or what about the flailing economy in “Margaritaville”? As Stan tries to make sense of the shockingly poor savings and loan situation, Kyle becomes the “savior” of his small town financial woes. Even when dealing with the problems of youth - Cartman wants to be a superhero in “The Coon”, but is constantly upstaged by another masked entity known as Mysterion, while everyone’s favorite toe-headed blonde is ridiculed for never being kissed, and ends up paying for, and profiting from the privilege in “Butter’s Bottom Bitch” - the series finds a way of working a myriad of modern talking points.
Clearly, the show has come a long way from the days when Parker and Stone would hand-manipulate little pieces of cut-out paper against a static backdrop. The celebrity impersonations - always clever and creatively pointed - have gotten much more exact, while action sequences and other big screen showcases have the true feel of a major motion picture. The amount of detail in each episode is also stunning, from the sensational Smurf village with its verdant natural feel to the Watchmen like work in “The Coon”. Sometimes, their ideas can go weirdly overboard (“Chipotl-away???”), but for the most part, South Park can only strain under its own unique imagination.
The current DVD and Blu-ray does something unusual as well. For the first time, we witness deleted scenes previously removed from episodes - sometimes for time consideration, in other instances, for those infamous last minute media mandates or changes of heart. In the “Dead Celebrities” episode, for example, the boys were going to dig up the corpse of Michael Jackson to prove to his spirit that he is indeed dead. They were then going to drag it around with them the rest of the storyline. When Parker deemed that “too much”, the graveyard sequence was scrapped. Similarly, an ending where the identity of Mysterion was altered, as well as a portion of Kayne West’s “Gay Fish” song are part of the package. In their typical snarky style, Parker and Stone also offer their ‘commentary minis’, discussing interesting aspects of each show before ADD (and a mandated four to seven minute time limit) shut them up.
With a new season currently underway (so far, our underage heroes have taken on Tiger Woods, sex addiction, banned books, and projectile vomiting) and no true ending point in sight, South Park seems poised to continue its reign as the real cartoon champ. While Homer stumbles around stupidly and Bart takes brattiness to various levels of believability, Parker and Stone simply scan the various outlets for scandal and sensationalism, and then quickly forge their unforgettable takes. That they can be so consistent, so of the moment and yet universally in sync speaks volumes for their talent and tenacity. It’s also why South Park rules and all others drool. While that may be blasphemy, it’s also the undeniable truth.