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South Park - The Hits, Vol. 1: Matt and Treys Top Ten

Sean O'Neal

For the casual fan or curious neophyte seeking to own only the most talked-about or controversial episodes of the last few years, this might be a good buy, but for everyone else, it's a disappointment.

South Park - The Hits, Vol. 1

Distributor: Paramount Home Video
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Matt and Trey's Top Ten
Network: Comedy Central
First date: 1997
US Release Date: 2006-10-03

Let's be straight: there is no reason to own this collection other than that it marks the debut DVD appearance of "The Spirit of Christmas", the naughty video greeting card that spawned 10 seasons and counting of Comedy Central's foulmouthed, Zeitgeist-defining cartoon South Park. That crude send-up of animated Christmas specials -- still hilariously sacrilicious in its depicting of a petty, petulant Jesus sparking war with Santa Claus over Christmas' rampant commercialism -- is cleaned-up and faithfully presented here in sparkling digital transfer for the first time, and for that this collection is indispensable. Everything else about it, however, is totally pointless.

Yes, the episodes within are all top-notch, handpicked by creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker as their favorites -- "the tall, smart, good looking ones" of their children, according to the box. And truly, this volume does contain some of the best examples of the show's mix of trenchant satire and character-based comedy. Yet all of these episodes have been chosen either from the soon-to-be-released ninth season ("Trapped In the Closet", "Best Friends Forever") or from volumes of DVDs that already exist (everything else), making this a pointless grab bag for the collector. For the casual fan or curious neophyte, perhaps seeking to own only the most talked-about or controversial episodes of the last few years, this might be a good buy. For the economically minded, too, this two-disc set contains 14 episodes -- the same number as the average season set -- at half the price, making it a surprising bargain. This collection is a real disappointment, however, for those who have diligently purchased the show's previous releases and plan to continue doing so.

If you can get a promo copy for free in exchange for writing about it, though, then by all means go for it! These episodes do show South Park at the top of their game, whether it's gamely attacking controversial topics like Terry Schiavo and the right-to-die movement or letting Cartman's maliciousness run wild as he stages an elaborate revenge on a seventh-grader who sells him his pubes. As always, South Park shifts easily between ripped-from-the-headlines commentary and toilet humor. In "Red Hot Catholic Love", the show takes on the Catholic priest scandals and the town's discovery that "if you put food in your butt, you will crap out of your mouth" within the same episode, taking what could have been a too-broad bit of obvious satire and making it so outlandish it becomes sharp again. When the two subplots finally intertwine -- as Stan's father Randy, who reacts to the scandals by declaring himself an atheist, begins pontificating on the need to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, he also pushes a large turd out of his mouth -- the joke makes both a juvenile and completely salient point, which pretty much goes for South Park itself.

One of the main reasons South Park's visibility has increased in the last year is its well-publicized spoofing of both Tom Cruise and Scientology in the episode "Trapped In the Closet". That episode was yanked from reruns and remains a rarity on Comedy Central, leading some to believe the oft-spoken rumor that Cruise himself pressured parent company Paramount to make it disappear. If there's any truth to that rumor, than Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone must have anticipated giving Cruise the boot, because "Trapped In The Closet" is the centerpiece of this volume, and as one of the most sought-after episodes yet, its inclusion, too, seems intended to fuel sales.

Cruise has every reason to hate "Trapped in the Closet", of course, because it portrays him as a creepy, delusional megalomaniac intent on hiding conflicted emotions -- i.e., the things that make us human -- behind a wall of fake-y self-empowerment, not to mention his adherence to a, shall we say, controversial religion. And naturally, the show also hints that Cruise is gay. Whether all of this is libelous is debatable, of course, and for their part Matt Stone insists that all of their pop culture skewering is "just ripping on the idea of celebrity itself." The fact remains that the show captured the growing backlash against Cruise and defined it, making it, like so many of their topical shows, a sort of time capsule of the nation's attitude. (It even finds room to make ridiculous sport of R. Kelly's already absurd song of the same name, managing to spoof something so overblown it had seemingly scoffed at parody.)

Despite his cries of being victimized, Cruise is in good company here, and at least he doesn't find himself stuffed up the ass of the bondage gear-clad Mr. Slave, something which can't be said of Paris Hilton. The title of her episode, "Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset" fairly says it all, but the episode itself is a still-timely dig at the way young American girls have embraced being "spoiled" as a badge of honor. Elsewhere, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez's whirlwind-romance-turned-yesterday's-news is memorialized in the bonus episode "Fat Butt and Pancake Head", in which Cartman's J-Lo hand puppet walks the fine line between racism and poking fun at racism while singing songs about "Taco Flavored Kisses". (And still, you never heard Ben and Jen complain, Tom.) South Park may end up dating itself by sticking to pop culture references that are so in the moment, but in the meantime it's still the go-to place for celebrity mocking, having the license to say things even the least career-minded comedians wouldn't dare.

Kurt Cobain once said, and it's been repeated since, that as soon as he heard "Weird Al" had done a parody of his song "Smells Like Teen Spirit", he knew that he had truly made it. Similarly, these days a current event, person, or trend isn't truly noteworthy unless it's been poked fun at on South Park. As the show moves into its 10th season, it continues to be a mordant observer of American life, and a trustworthy deflator of sacred cows, in between being a reliably funny cartoon. Matt Stone and Trey Parker's impact on pop culture or influence on popular opinion may be continually overstated in the press -- or by wounded celebrities -- but as most of this collection shows, their intentions are first and foremost to make themselves laugh.

The idea, then, that these bravely self-serving creators felt the need to reinforce this notion with a self-congratulatory collection of Hits is disappointing. One can only hope Sumner Redstone put them up to it, just to have something to send to Suri's baby shower.


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