It had a strange sense of serendipity to it. On the same week as its release on DVD, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s now classic animated TV series was faced with the loss of the late, lamented character Chef. During one of their ‘commentary mini’ tracks that function as an added insight into the show’s creation, Parker discussed how the episode entitled “The List”, could have used the guiding presence and often sex-based sensibility of one Jerome McElroy. It was a passing sentiment, an acknowledgment that the issue with co-star Isaac Hayes in Season 10 still stung, if just a little. Then the news arrived of the actor/musician’s death at age 65. Suddenly, the turmoil over Hayes’ leaving and the controversy surrounding his possible motives seemed insignificant.
A great deal of South Park‘s amazing satire functions in this capacity. During a run which saw the boys take on terrorism in both the brilliant three part epic “Imaginationland” and the 24-inspired “The Snuke” while maintaining the kid friendly perspective via “The List” and “Lice Capades”, Season 11 could be described as more of the same – and that’s a good thing. While the series continued to push the boundaries of acceptability (the halting homophobia of “Cartman Sucks”, the N-word incorporating mayhem of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”), it also used its creative ace in the hole to skirt around scandal. Parker and Stone have always argued that they get away with what they do thanks in no small part to being a pen and ink project. They readily recognize that, outside a cartoon format, their brand of humor would be impossible.
And then there’s the ‘children’. For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs. Garrison (the gang’s transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.
That’s definitely true of the terrific triptych that forms the basis for the series’ most ambitious artistry ever. “Imaginationland” (reviewed here in its initial digital release) remains a perfect combination of South Park ideals. On the one hand, you’ve got the amazing and insightful look at how fear robs us of our safety – and how politicians push it to steal away our freedoms as well. In addition, you’ve got the loving look at fictional characters past and present, good and evil, classic and newly created. Drawing on dozens of inspirations, the sequences in the title kingdom are masterful. When you toss in the subplot scuffle between Cartman and Kyle, centering on a bet and the “sucking of balls”, you have the entire series in an ‘anything and everything goes’ nutshell. More importantly, it stresses the show’s desire to be topical while true to the characters involved.
This is showcased in several episodes involving the boys. While “Guitar Queer-O” definitely focuses on the famed videogame, the main thread takes Stan and Kyle on a rags-to-riches-to-rejection-to redemption-to-reconnection music industry satire that riffs on local Colorado celebrities and The Partridge Family in the process. The head lice episode, while dealing ostensibly with the kind of Jerry Bruckheimer inspired action films that turn everything into an over the top apocalyptic disaster, also shows how cruel and cliquish little kids can be. The aforementioned “List” is perhaps the most obvious example of this ideal. While painting young girls as capable of the same high crimes and corrupt misdemeanors of any closed off conspiracy, the real focus finds social rejection and peer acceptance as the main themes.
South Park has always been good about spreading the wit wealth, so to speak. It will go wholly down the commode for the ‘biggest turd’ treats of “More Crap” or the purposefully foul mouthed “Le Petite Tourette”, while pulling things back for the Dawn of the Dead parody “Night of the Living Homeless”. Some have suggested that, “Imaginationland” aside, Season 11 is nothing more than the series resting on its already substantial laurels (including an Emmy win for Season 10). Oddly enough, that’s not the critical complaint it’s intended to be, especially when similarity suggests a continuous level of cleverness, insight, and laugh out loud elements. Like The Simpsons, Parker and Stone have discovered that a simple set up can lead to a world of possible punchlines. They also recognize that some subjects heretofore unripe for parody can be made hilarious with just a little brains…and butt gas.
This is especially noticeable when you hear the men talk. The South Park creators are indeed their own worst detractors. During their three to six minute discussions on each episode in the DVD set, they frequently fall back, arguing over concepts that didn’t play out right, or approaches that, in hindsight, needed more thought. They generally dislike the Mr./Ms. Garrison as a lesbian lift of 300 known as “D-Yikes”, and wonder if their take-off of The Da Vinci Code, “Fantastic Easter Special”, really hit the mark. They admit to adding the Cartman fighting a dwarf subplot as a means of avoiding the otherwise hot button blatancy of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”, while “Cartman Sucks” had more anti-religious railing than they would probably care to admit.
Still, in a genre that often goes for the safe and inoffensive, South Park continues to flaunt its usually flawless, always fearless funny business. Season 11 will be a hard act to follow, but with the first half of 12 already available for scrutiny, it’s clear that Parker and Stone have no intention of backing down. More importantly, with themselves as the intended focus group so to speak, the show will never be accused of laziness or a lack of vision. After more than a decade of farts, feces, and friendship, you’d think they’d run out of compelling ideas. But as this DVD demonstrates over and over again, as long as its founders find fault in what they do, South Park will strive to maintain its own unique level of anarchic insanity.