Saturday, January 20, 2001

South Park review | 9.2

Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflowfski, Eric Cartman and (sometimes) the ill-fated Kenny McCormick are 8-year-old boys growing up amid an adult world in the backward, frozen-over mountain town of South Park, Colorado. Their adventures, that make up creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's animated comedy "South Park", include fending off everything from supernatural demons to the biggest names in the Hollywood intelligentsia. "South Park" is several things. It's rude, crude, shocking, smart, decidedly adult, completely original, and it is indulgent in the whims and imaginations of it's creators. It's also the very best political, pop culture and current event satire on television.

The show started as something of a fad - the new vulgar, don't-let-the-kids-watch show on the block. But as real world events changed, "Park" evolved along with them. Standing as the kings on top of a soap box they constructed out of swearing kids, talking poo, homosexual hand puppets and hermaphroditic parents; Parker and Stone where blessed with the freedom of a hit series, hip status and a network that gave them the freedom to do whatever they want. As the show aged, they matured in their storytelling abilities and the show went from shock value fad to a barbed satire of American culture.

"Park" is brought to life with oddly beautiful, vibrantly colored 2-dimensional cut-and-paste animation. The episodes are masterfully constructed. The writing a witty showcase of Parker and Stone's love for pop culture parody, graphic violence, pornography and a bold willingness to take on the hot button issues of the week. It is a free-for-all virtuoso where nothing and nobody is safe, every establishment media position gets flipped on it's head and every politically correct sacred cow gets eviscerated. Now that's comedy - if you can stomach a barrage of extreme scatological humor with your social satire. The vomit jokes and fat jokes on "Park" aren't there for the sake of it, but have substance behind them. And nobody does them better.

Eric Cartman, Mr. Garrison and more recently Randy Marsh (stepping up as a reliably hilarious scene-stealer) are classic characters, but Parker and Stone have gone further and developed an entire town of colorful caricatures. They aren't made to be as endearing as those in "The Simpsons", but aren't supposed to be. The characters aren't just vacuous idiots, and the laughs of the show come from a very socially conscious place.

Straight men Stan and Kyle are the show's most underdeveloped. They serve mostly as a mouthpiece for Parker and Stone's conservative libertarian philosophy, often literally giving a speech to a crowd in the show's finale. There is not a single other place on TV where you can see environmentalists, the anti-smoking lobby, illegal immigrants, trial lawyers, news media hysteria, elitist Hollywood liberals, abortion, sex ed in schools and every celebrity from Mel Gibson to Paris Hilton all get ripped to shreds. The show pulls it off because it has a unique ability to deconstruct and reconstruct current events better than anyone else (notably Comedy Central's overrated "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"), giving them a hilarious or supernatural explanation without moralizing getting in the way of the laughs. They take their own messages to such loony extremes it's impossible to take seriously.The cherry on top is the seemingly endless quality of the original songs provided by the creator's cover band, DVDA.

With a skeleton crew that writes, directs, animates, voices and scores the show, this is independent television in it's purest form. This means it often labors on Parker and Stone's geeky indulgences - episodes center around a full-length "Star Wars" parody, the class gerbil making it's way up a human bowel or Timmy, a handicapped student who can only say his name. Occasionally, their shock value execution creates a gagging reaction that obscures an otherwise brilliant point ("Fat Camp"). But I'd rather have a show that challenges me than one shackled to clich├ęs and network mandates. When "South Park" goes for the shocking ending, you better believe it actually will shock.

Still, "South Park" is almost impossible to recommend in a casual sense. The show is truly an acquired taste, but one I have to come to support whole-heartedly through the years despite (and because) I have absolutely no idea what to expect when sitting down for a new episode. How rare is that? Where so many other shows cower in the corner, begging for our approval "South Park" is constantly taking risks and re-inventing itself. We've got terrific stunt episodes, episodes built around one joke or building to a single knock-out punch line. They use the smash-cut ending better than anyone ("There Goes the Neighborhood"). Sometimes the experiments are to it's own detriment and the episode is a 22 minute bore, but even then it's almost unheard of to find a show in it's 10th season that is still water cooler television.

"South Park" grabs us by the collar, shakes us around and dares even it's biggest fans to come back next week for more. The show is a monument of creative freedom with a wicked imagination, a true (and hilariously funny) sense of comic timing, and an insightful, socially conscious ear that smartly reflects a point of view starving for attention in mainstream television. It is a hugely entertaining, fiercely visceral, fire-breathing, red-blooded American satire made by, for (and most appreciated by) the most jaded and discriminating TV viewers. We just don't have shows like this on TV today. Anywhere.

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