You work 18 hours and whaddya get? Parents sell ya to Paris Hilton.
–Butters, “Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset”
South Park‘s eighth season is dubbed “the year from hell” by co-creator Trey Parker during his commentary for “Cartman’s Incredible Gift.” He and partner Matt Stone were juggling production duties for 2004’s Team America: World Police with their work on the show, complicating a normally grueling schedule. Only at the beginning of the season did they realize “how screwed [they] were.” And yet, despite the frenetic pace of production, Season Eight is a solid one, offering some enjoyable episodes and the occasional bit of sharp-eyed satire.
Voltaire it’s not. Commenting on the eighth season premiere, “Fun with Weapons,” Parker and Stone apologize, “We just don’t have that much to say about each episode.” (Their commentaries rarely run longer than five minutes.) This lack of reflection is partly a function of the show’s creative process: South Park writers often struggle into the early morning hours, completing scripts mere days before airtime. Such a high-pressure approach can yield some inspired work — call it the “writing your term paper fueled by Mountain Dew” method — but don’t expect the finished product to sustain much in-depth analysis, even by its creators. The rush enables a timeliness few shows can match, but episodes tend toward gut-level reactions to that week’s zeitgeist stimuli.
Episode 12, “Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset,” takes Paris Hilton as its target. She’s probably the world’s most satire-proof effluvia. While she might be emblematic of the vacuity of American popular culture, with its irrational worship of “celebrity,” even this observation is banal. Parker and Stone’s jab that Paris is famous because “she’s a whore” is less satire than axiom. Animated as a semi-conscious celebutard stumbling from scene to scene, this Paris has one eye half-open, coughing up white gunk every few minutes. (“That is man-spooge she’s coughing up onto her hand, if that wasn’t clear,” Parker comments helpfully.)
She visits South Park to celebrate the opening of her new store, “Stupid Spoiled Whore,” where, she says, “Girls can buy everything they need to be just like me!” The episode concludes with Mr. Slave’s speech: “Being spoiled and stupid and whorish is supposed to be a bad thing, remember? Parents, if you don’t teach your children that people like Paris Hilton are supposed to be despised, where are they gonna learn it?… You have to be the ones to make sure your daughters aren’t looking up to the wrong people.” Duly noted, South Park.
That Parker and Stone deem themselves fit to offer advice on child-rearing is not what makes South Park disappointing. As Steven Weisenburger points out in Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel 1930-1980, satire is traditionally “corrective.” Moralizing may be integral to the genre, as is a belief that wit can affect reality for the better.
What makes South Park such an uneven project is the success of its absurd, scatological, non-sequitur-based humor combined with the relative limpness of its satire. Weisenburger defines two kinds of satire: the “generative” and the “degenerative.” Parker and Stone work in the former, working to “construct consensus, and to deploy irony in the work of stabilizing various cultural hierarchies.” Whereas degenerative satire, typically postmodern, focuses on “delegitimizing” all cultural values, South Park wants to reassert “common sense” moralities: Paris Hilton is a whore, not a role model. Mel Gibson is a little crazy and Jesus should be remembered for his words, not how badly he suffered for you (“The Passion of the Jew”). American politicians are often indistinguishable from one another (“Douche and Turd”). The problem with Wal-Mart is not corporate greed, but that people want to buy things at cheap prices (“Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes”). Michael Jackson is weird (“The Jeffersons,” and finding new ways to mock Michael Jackson is a bit like the quest for cold fusion).
If these sound like clichéd “insights,” it’s because they are. Despite its reputation as an equal opportunity offender, South Park rarely asks viewers to rethink their expectations. Even more rarely does it brandish the satirical scalpel rather than the sledgehammer. (A recent episode “took on” 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and guess what? They’re “retards!”) Instead, the show offers poop jokes with the faint aroma of topicality. Funny, yes. Hilarious, even. But finally, as Parker and Stone admit, they just don’t have that much to say.