28 April 2010

Because it was on TV: South Park's turn from Relevancy to Bitchiness

I felt like with recent events this post has become necessary. While a few weeks ago I similarly described the downfall of NBC's The Office, I believe the last few seasons of South Park have been indicative of its decline, or at the least, a shift in tone and subject matter.

Let me back up. I want to be clear that I adore South Park. The show currently has more seasons in its Prime than The Simpsons and has not only infiltrated Pop Culture for the past 14 years, but has been able to grow and adapt, evolve as culture shifts. It reminds me of how Weird Al Yankovic has had a career longer than some of the artists he's parodied. His style never goes out of style. They just make fun of everything that's current so as long as current shit is still stupid.

In the past couple seasons though, it seems like South Park's targets have become more and more desperate and arbitrary. It's important to note here that I'm not trying to say that the show is any more ridiculous or that its celebrity mockery is grown outdated or tired. It's just that I perceive that some of the angst has lost its focus.

Let's start with a couple episodes from Season 13, which shows a pretty clear ascension to what I'm talking about. I'd start with a critique of "The Ring" (S13;E1) along the lines of an easy target. It reminds me of purportedly hilarious Eminem songs making fun of Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian (A possible R.I.P. to Bret Michaels in a few days by the way - yeah this video will be timeless...) They're not really on the same level, it's like "What are you doing, dude? Who cares about that?" As I mentioned here, however, "The Ring" actually also addresses some serious concerns about a substantial demographic - its power to consume as well as overt corporate manipulation of this power. Thus, the episode is lifted as probably one of the best of the season. Let's move on.

"Fishsticks" (S13;E5) was very funny, but its target seemed pretty arbitrary until the whole Kanye-Taylor Swift debacle. Yeah, we need to remember that "Fishsticks" came out BEFORE everyone else (including Obama) realised Kanyeezy was a jackass. So good foresight on Matt and Trey's part. We move on to a much weaker later half of the season where almost every episode seems strangely misplaced. "Dead Celebrities" (S13;E8) should have come out during the summer to be more effective (during South Park's hiatus), and "W.T.F" (S13;E10) is a clever observation but also could be attached to any zeitgeist of the past twenty years. It's making fun of a constant part of pop culture that's always around to mock. South Park, based on its style, production and precedent needs to either feed off extremely current events (literally week of) or create its own twisted mythos (see "Imaginationland [S11;E10-12]) to supplement its canon. In any other fashion (that is, shooting for and missing zeitgeist), South Park fails.

Now we get to probably the two most eyebrow-raising episodes of the season. "Whale Whores" (S13;E11) and "The F Word" (S13;E12) feel like two subjects Matt and Trey felt like addressing that they try to get their viewers on board with humiliating, but our ire just isn't that deep. For instance, EVERYONE hates Paris Hilton (S8;E12), hates Ben Affleck (S7;E5), hates Crab People (S7;E8), but who really has a serious problem with that fat dude from Whale Wars? I mean...who cares? It's not that big of a deal within our Pop Culture to give a treatment as brutal as they did to Tom Cruise (S9;E12). I mean, I guess Harley riders are kind of irritating for the few seconds as they drive by but devoting an entire episode to a complete derision of their entire culture doesn't seem like it was worth South Park's time. The gripes seem forced and arbitrary (regardless however, "Whale Whores" will always be remembered for Cartman's rendition "Poker Face" [actually also slightly off zeitgeist, GaGa was in the middle of "Paparazzi" at that point). We can even treat "Dances with Smurfs" (S13;E13) as hitting a bit too early for people to be familiar with AVABAR (2009).

So the past two weeks' episodes were really the catalyst for this post. Season 14 up to this point had been very strong and included a collection of instant classics ("Medicinal Fried Chicken [S14;E3] is merely a succession of absolutely brilliant moments and "You Have 0 Friends" [S14;E4] has that perfect South Park ability to sum up entirely the idiotic experience of a huge part of our culture - which is also important to note that Facebook is a huge part of Zeitgeist right now for everyone who is older than 27 and younger than 17). The production and airing of the episodes "200" and "201" (S14;E5-6) were an absolute delight. The creators very deftly summed up a lot of their past ideas without a hokey clip show and the ending gag is simply awsome.

I take exception to the message, however. I don't think it's that important. The blatant hypocrisy is evident. From Mohammad's prior appearance in "Super Best Friends" (S5;E3) (which by the way, is on its fucking Wikipedia page, and you can also see here, here, here and here) to Buddha's coke and Jesus' internet porn, we are hit over the head with the purpose of the episodes. In fact for the most part the entire purpose seems to be call back every single real-life celebrity the Duo has ripped apart before and demonstrate that they've done worse to just about everyone on earth besides Mohammad. I get that. But is it really that big a deal that they can't rip on (or show) Mohammad? I don't understand their need to push that envelope. It's not even pushing a violent or sexual envelope but one of free speech.

But is it really? There have been many other shows coming to South Park's defense but I won't. This post is going against a lot of what I believe, and for one I think it's absolute bullshit that Comedy Central censored the majority of "201." The best thing that could have happened had the Network shown Mohammad is that Matt and Trey would have demonstrated the success of Free Speech in the face of another religion's sacred belief. This isn't outrageous, they've reworked a lot of sacred beliefs. The worst thing that could happen is that someone dies. Possibly Matt and Trey. Is Free Speech worth death? Many would say "Fuck yeah!" and normally I would as well, but it just doesn't seem important in this situation. There's no conscious need to show Mohammad other than to advance their point about Free Speech. Matt and Trey are utilizing the Prophet only for their own agenda, which again I can't figure out their consistent need to push the envelope. It's not always necessary to make great art.

This seems to me more of a case of out-of-control media egos than a part of true patriots fighting for free speech. This point seems more relevant when I look at Season 13 and see how more than making good points and lampooning celebrities who needed taking down, they moreover merely went after the few who irritated them personally. In fact, I believe this was foreshadowed by "The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs" (S14;E2) in which the most foul, disgusting book in the world is also considered its greatest (although the creators DO explicitly state the grotesquery means nothing - not unlike The Beatles attempts to avoid deep analysis [Read this book for more on that]). Still, there are more cases of Ego, writing desperation (attacking the Kardashians is like shooting already dead fish attached to the end of your gun) and self-importance within this and Season 13 for me to disavow "201"'s importance. I of course disagree with censorship, but this is cable TV. It kind of sucks, but you can't have live-action penetration, either. It's just the way it goes. It is a shame though, as it seems like they've reached their ceiling. Comedy Central has never censored something like this before, it's hard to figure out where to go from here. Make a movie, make a DVD, make something where you can show what you want. As long as someone else is running the show, you aren't going to have complete control over your work.

So quit yer bitchin'.

Tonight at 10:00 EST on Comedy Central - what's next?


  1. I'll contend that "Poker Face" was definitely the best GaGa song to lampoon in "Whale Wars," no question. It's her most ubiquitous song in our culture, particularly among the South Park demographic.

    It's also got a much more natural and catchy rhythm than "Paparazzi," and people can instantly picture it being sung by Cartman (or Christopher Walken!)

  2. You can also see Matt and Trey's bitchiness over this issue as Negative Liberty, an idea largely attributed to Isaiah Berlin, basically that instead of true self-realization and determination (Positive Liberty), they instead define their liberty as "freedom from other beings or obstacles" thus never really achieving true freedom within a cultural framework.


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