When Comedy Central debuted South Park way back in 1997, the adult animated sitcom was an immediate phenomenon, but the sort of phenomenon that many assumed would constitute a “flash in the pan”. Many critics dismissed the show as shock humor and fart jokes without any true substance. However the show kept coming back and evolving on both the small screen and in movie theatres (1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was even nominated for a Best Original Song Academy Award). As the show continued to add social commentary and intelligent humor, its acclaim grew, although South Park never really lost its edge.
As creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have branched out into other areas, most notably the huge musical The Book of Mormon, the show did hit a few low spots and showed its fatigue with a number of “pretty good” yet ultimately underwhelming episodes.
For 2013’s 17th season, the team scaled back their number of episodes from 14 (released in two batches) to 10 (the second season still holds the record at 18 episodes) and somehow managed to excise the lesser filler episodes to grant viewers ten very fine half hours of South Park. Is this a return to the rare form that Parker and Stone have been so celebrated for or a sign of more fatigue from the creators (and voices of) Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny?
Judging from the content of the Blu Ray release of The Complete 17th Season, this is a little bit of both. While certainly not barebones, the collection is a far cry from the features found in early releases. The first few seasons released on DVD contained commentaries, documentaries and even on-screen introductions to each episode. Season 17’s release continues the “mini commentaries” trend (on which Parker and Stone speak for the first few minutes before they “move on to the next episode) of recent seasons and a “Pop Up Video” style text commentary capturing the show’s live Twitter feed. While these extras are entertaining and welcome, those are really the only ones we get.
That said, this little “intentionally bad” cut out animation show has never looked better. Ever since the second episode, the actual cut outs have been replaced by computer animation which for some time was still intended to look cheap. However in recent years, the (still decidedly two-dimensional) animation has improved beautifully with excellent uses of light and shadow as well as more fully realized characters (that still look like the original cast).
The season kicks off with the 238th episode, “Let Go, Let Gov” a lesser episode (that still beats the lesser episodes of recent seasons) that features resident sociopath Eric Cartman (Parker) working to blow the whistle on the NSA’s spying on the phone conversations of American citizens. Meanwhile, the apparent omniscience of the NSA causes naïve Butters (Stone) to start worshipping the government like a deity. While not a bad episode, “Let Go, Let Gov” does often feel a bit tired with its easy jokes (Bill Hader’s impression of Alec Baldwin is spot on, but not much useful is really done with the bit) and a rather obvious ending, all of which make for a pretty decent episode that proves underwhelming for a season opener.
Things take a step up with the second episode, “Informative Murder Porn”. The parents of South Park become obsessed with shows like Investigative Discovery and so the kids use a parental block on their parents’ cable boxes for their own good. The only hints of how to resolve the parental block are within the game of Minecraft, which (the episode jokes) most adults will never understand. Unlike the previous episode, there is almost nothing predictable in “Informative Murder Porn”. What’s more, just as they have done previously in episodes like “Make Love, Not Warcraft” and “Good Times With Weapons”, the animators have mixed in a completely different style of animation (specifically that of Minecraft) with their own for some hilarious moments, including the crack-up ending.
“World War Zimmerman” is so high-concept that occasionally the storyline gets completely lost. A parody of the plot of World War Z (2013) with the George Zimmerman trial and African American response thereto as a backdrop, this third episode of the season focuses on Cartman traveling the country attempting to stop an “outbreak” of zombie-like rage at the Zimmerman verdict. While the satire and social commentary is sharper and more biting than ever here, the ending falls rather flat and feels like the writers ran out of good ideas.
South Park’s “goth kids” have been a good source of comedy for the show since they first debuted and their puzzling enmity toward the (remarkably similar) “vampire kids” (“posers”) continues to be funny in “Goth Kids 3: Dawn of the Posers”. This time, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style plot brings in a third (remarkably similar) group, the “emo kids”, for both the goths and the vamps to detest in unity. While the final few minutes lose steam, the disaffected ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (who acts just like the kids) makes this one worth watching.
“Taming Strange”, featuring Kyle’s little brother Ike developing precocious puberty as Yo Gabba Gabba’s Foofa evolves into a Miley Cyrus-inspired sex icon had a lot of potential but ultimately falls flat, even as the Obamacare spoofs attempt to keep the episode topical. “Taming Strange” survives due to its collection of funny moments rather than as an episode on the whole. This continues into the next episode, “Ginger Cow”, which features the high concept of a biblical prophecy seeming to come true (thanks to the machinations of Eric Cartman) and uniting the world’s religions in peace. This good episode could have been great if it weren’t for the over-reliance on gross-out comedy. On the bright side, though, Van Halen does perform a couple of songs.
Greatness is what we get when Parker and Stone return to their long form storylines, in which they tend to shine like the top of the Chrysler building. “Black Friday” begins a mock-epic (nay, epic) trilogy that continues in “A Song of Ass and Fire” and “Titties and Dragons”, all of which leads into the South Park video game The Stick of Truth (which became available in stores a few months after the trilogy aired). Starting (appropriately enough) with the quest to obtain the next generation video game system (the two opposing teams can’t decide whether to rally together to get PlayStation 4 consoles or X-Box Ones on Black Friday), the feature-length story soon evolves into a spoof of Game of Thrones, utilizes elements deleted from the game and brings in some more surprisingly different animation for the Sony scenes, which mimic an Anime style. While not quite on par with Season 11’s “Imaginationland” trilogy, this new epic shows that Parker and Stone can still bring out their best with longer storylines. Further, unlike many of the episodes this season, “Titties and Dragons” ends perfectly with a few big guffaw moments.
While the tenth and final episode’s title of “The Hobbit” may promise more “epic” storytelling, this entry brings back South Park’s version of “recovering gay fish” Kanye West who repeatedly tries and fails to prove that his fiancée Kim Kardashian is not, in fact, a fat, hairy Hobbit. The episode succeeds in mocking and satirizing the trend of celebrities to appear beautiful in photographs due to Photoshopping as an unattractive girl suddenly becomes popular thanks to some creative editing. Everything works perfectly as long as her enviable new boyfriend keeps looking at her modified picture on his smart phone instead of directly at her.
Season 17 isn’t quite a perfect season (if there is such a thing), but the high quality moments and the near dearth of let-downs in these ten episodes prove that the creators of South Park are still in their prime (or, at least, on one of their upswings). There still isn’t another show like this one on television and thankfully South Park remains as biting and satirical as ever. Along with The Venture Bros., South Park is truly the funniest and smartest animated program aimed at adults on television.