South Park

Here’s an idea for the next unmanned space probe NASA sends into the deepest reaches of our galaxy. Instead of placing generic images of humanity or some recording of the U.N. Secretary General spouting, “Hello!” in 67 languages, just deliver a season of South Park. It may not present the best and brightest vision of life in these United States, but it will surely provide them with the most insightful and honest view of our vanishing culture ever to call itself a cartoon.

Still going strong after eight seasons (the ninth began this past March) South Park is the sole show on basic cable that completely understands how to do satire. Whether it’s George Lucas, Osama Bin Laden or Russell Crowe, no famous face, no infamous situation or arcane reference is safe from ridicule. Through the four main characters — all voiced by creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone — the show consistently renders a crude litmus test of American values.

In the brilliantly titled “Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow,” Stan and Cartman cause a dam to burst, flooding the nearby city of Beavertown. As helpless citizens wait to be rescued, the blame game begins. Some point to FEMA, while others contend that “George Bush doesn’t care about beavers.” News stations “report” inflated death tolls and grievous acts of looting, rape, and cannibalism. Everybody goes apeshit when they learn that global warming is the “official” cause of the disaster.

The episode is not just a jab at the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. The pop cultural target this time is Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow. Parker and Stone said in interviews during production for Team America: World Police that they originally wanted to take on Tomorrow as the premise for that film. Refitted for South Park, outsized dialogue and plot points that seemed semi-sensible on the big screen now shrivel up and stink.

As writers, Parker and Stone are like observational stand-up comics, without all the wry self-referencing and glib performance shtick. In South Park, they take regularly aim at racial prejudice, religious hypocrisy, radical political agendas on either side. When steroids became an issue in baseball, the South Park boys discover that their handicapped friend Jimmy is using the “juice” to get ready for the Special Olympics. Paris Hilton’s quest for some manner of sluttish immortality leads the little girls in town to buy her Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset. This season has seen the series tackle hippies, the PSP, and the sex change operation.

Just as often the series takes another route, exaggerating holy hell out of a subject, and accenting it with outlandish profanity and toilet humor. Consider the persistently sour relationship between Cartman and Kyle. While the latter thinks his piggish friend is a prick, Cartman has boiled his ersatz-buddy down to one word — Jew. Kyle, of course, dismisses this judgment as anti-Semitic, but Parker and Stone continue to explore the rationales for such slanderous stereotypes.

In “Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow,” Cartman and Kyle have one of those elephantine action movie showdowns on a bridge that’s about to collapse. As fire rages all around them, Cartman won’t let Stan pass until he gets his hands on his “Jew gold.” At first we wonder if this is just some sophomoric euphemism, but the belligerent butterball goes on to explain himself. All Jews, he argues, carry little brown satchels of gold around their necks, and he wants Kyle’s. The threatened boy acts like his pal is insane, but eventually, he reveals two sacks around his neck. One contains the real gold. The other is a decoy, which he carries to be prepared for precisely such situations.

Such overkill is South Park‘s strong suit. By revealing the truth of certain stereotypes — some blacks have “rhythm” and are good athletes, and a few gays are “swishy” and promiscuous — the series repeatedly shows the ludicrousness of broad labels. Famous for its cutouts, the series is built on three-dimensional characters, carefully finessed and complicated. Token Black (his name) may be rich and snotty, but when called on to play the bass, or sing with soul, he answers the racial call. Mr. Garrison, the boys’ occasionally closeted teacher, has a sex slave assistant instructor who lisps and defends his sexual proficiency (he even defeats Ms. Hilton in a “whore off”).

“Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow” features this same daffy double standard. The journalists here are excitable hype-mongers who will do anything to grab ratings, prompting a rapid response — panic. The government’s incompetent bureaucrats fail to grasp even the simplest of scientific concepts. When forced into action, however, they are efficient in curbing disaster. South Park regularly exposes both hypocrisy and humanity, with fart jokes to ease the pain.

It’s no surprise that Parker and Stone found the potential parody in Katrina. As they have with almost every other major news event, from the Iraq War to the Elian Gonzalez incident, they use the show to channel their chagrin over the hideous ways society stumbles under pressure. Unlike sunshine sitcoms which paint the planet as a thriving paradise of quips and irony, South Park cuts through the crap and tells the truth. So, if aliens from another world want to know what’s really happening, they should seek out a satellite signal from South Park‘s endless reruns on Comedy Central (and this year, in syndication to local TV stations). But if those aliens muck up an invasion, they’ll be the target in the next week’s episode.