SOUTH PARK On the Edge


South Park has had a bunch of cultural ups and downs: every time it seems to be “out,” it comes back and becomes relevant again. (Most famously, the movie was made at a time when the show’s early fame had burned out and it seemed likely to be canceled. It came out, made lots of money, and gave the whole franchise a new reputation for cutting-edge satire, as opposed to the bad-taste absurdism it was famous for in its first year.) The last couple of seasons have, on the whole, been “out” seasons, and the rather lukewarm Tiger Woods season premiere didn’t change much. Joshua Alston in Newsweek thinks that the need to be topical and keep up with the news — the thing that separates the hastily-produced South Park from all other animated shows, with their longer lead times — has drained the comic edge out of the show.

I’d imagine that a day will come when South Park will consider a shift in its approach to line up better with audience appetites, one that emphasizes having the smartest take rather than the fastest one. Because even with its quick turnaround, by the time South Park gets to a joke, Stewart, Colbert, and Letterman, et al. have already planted flags there. And if you’re going to show up late to the party, you have to make a hell of an entrance.

I think there’s something to this, but I don’t know if it works as an absolute rule. Some of the weaker South Park episodes are the topical ones, but there are plenty of weak episodes that could have been produced at any time. (Every year the staff tries to do one “bank” show, a non-topical story that they can start early in the season and finish later, and it often winds up as a dullish episode, because Parker and Stone aren’t at their best unless they’re working on something at the very last minute.) If I see a more consistent problem with South Park of late, it’s that it’s leaning very heavily on one or two types of stories and comedy. Trey Parker does not have the most enormous range as a comedy writer-director, and there are several ideas he leans on very heavily, one of which is to have all the characters (except one or more of the kids) take something very seriously when it really doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously at all. So the season premiere had concepts like “no single man would ever want to cheat on his wife if he didn’t have a disease” and “sex addiction was created by a wizard alien” being discussed with grave seriousness, and… well, that accounts for most of the jokes.

Other South Park tropes that are used over and over: everyone acts like they’re in a disaster movie; Trey Parker devotes a scene or an entire subplot to some video game that he’s been playing; Trey Parker does an episode about some reality show he watches (Dog Whisperer, Whale Wars). As I’ve said earlier, I suspect this may just be what happens when two guys get to the point where they have no life experience any more to draw on, and spend most of their time making TV, playing video games, or reading Drudge.

Still, South Park remains entertaining and has still been able to come up with bits that catch on (the “Gay Fish” song most notably). And every time they seem like they’re going too far in one direction, they bounce back; remember how the Terri Schiavo episode restored their libertarian-hipster cred at a time when the creators were under attack (after Team America) for being too standard-issue conservative, and how they turned the departure of Isaac Hayes into a plus for the show, publicity-wise. Trey Parker will never be the great satirist some commentators thought he was back in 1999, but he usually retains… not an edge, but at least a way of freshening his basically limited (but funny) bag of comedy tricks.


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SOUTH PARK On the Edge

  1. Eff off. It ruls

  2. it ruls indeed

  3. I don't think it's totally fair to say that the last two seasons have been "out" seasons. I found the first half of the last season to be really, really good — some of their best stuff. However, the second half was generally pretty meh — some of their worst stuff in recent memory. They probably do need to get out more :)

  4. South Park's episodes appeal to different demographics, I know my social circles thought the F word was one of the best episodes in years, taking on issues with word usage is something pretty much only South Park can do, and that was a great episode.

  5. Of the legitimately great episodes South Park has put out throughout its run (or at least since it regularly attempted topicality), the split of those great episodes between those that are topical, and those that are just another episode, has basically been 50/50 for me. Proving so would basically be me posting a huge list of episodes from the last ten years. But people are right to say that they've focused far more on topicality lately, and that the last couple of seasons have been weaker.

    What I'm basically getting at is that I don't think they should abolish topicality altogether, because it has just as much of a chance at being a great episode as a non-topical one. But first and foremost, if Parker gets excited about a story, any story, it turns into a great episode, and locking themselves to topical stories only probably makes them think they have to comment on something even if they don't feel particularly passionate about it. I remember that, around when the Terri Schiavo episode rightfully won acclaim, Parker and Stone explained that they were trying more topical episodes because people seemed to respond to those, and I don't think they've stopped. That said, though my favourite episodes of all time are the non-topical Woodland Critter Christmas and Scott Tenorman Must Die, my favorite episodes of the last two seasons are one non-topical episode, Super Fun Time, and the topical episodes about Britney Spears, the Jonas Brothers, and the economy ("Margaritaville").

  6. I gotta say, the Comedy Central show this week on the book, & Sarah Jessica Parker — was the single worst South Park episode I've ever seen. It was just terrible. I didn't crack a smile once, and that's what I thought, "these guys no longer have a connection to the world."

  7. People, this is SOUTH PARK we're talking about, this is their STAPLE……..fart jokes, killing, making fun of famous people, innocence of 3rd now 4th graders, ANYTHING offensive etc. I have been a fan since day one, and the show only gets better, sure there are some misses but overall Still a great show.

  8. I think the problem with topicality relates to their distribution model. A lot of people watch South Park online, and not necessarily as soon as episodes come out. I usually don't watch for a while, but then watch 3-4 episodes in one sitting when I think "oh yeah, South Park, that show is good." Their take on topical episodes is often rather stale by that point.

    I think South Park is at its best when it satirizes broad trends, big issues, persistent cultural phenomena or concepts – for instance the Atheism two-parter or cartoon wars. In other words, when it fills the vacuum that used to be filled by the Simpsons. The first 8 or so seasons of the Simpsons were brilliant in part because they were genuinely funny, but also because they were perfect satires of the world we live in – from impressionable mobs to the third-wall breaking self-satire. Unfortunately the shows writers/producers decided that the show was successful because people liked seeing the main character be dumb (which is true, but its not ALL I want to see).

    A show that succeeds in doing so will not only be funnier, it will have a staying power that Seth McFarlane's constantly devolving competitors (the Cleveland Show is just terrible) can never claim. Now that DVD markets exist, that's not nothing.

  9. I like the one where Cartman and Osama Bin Ladin are running around doing a spoof on Looney Toons.

    The show is a lot better if you watch it under the influence of your favourite mind altering substance.

    But I know what you mean it definitely can be stale sometimes. Jaime do you have suggestions for TV shows that are funnier?

  10. Why don't they get Kenny to fall in love with a niqab wearing 4th grader girl… But have Cartman 'Nazihad' Kenny as the twist in the plot…… Turns out Kenny is a 'Ginger' terrorist sleeper kid…. The Ultra-Muslim girl saved the day…

  11. Don't worry, I think Red-head chicks are hot…

  12. Naaaw… I really don't agree. There were plenty of good episodes in the last two seasons (12, 13) that addressed current issues in a highly satirical and ironic way. Just think of 'Butters Bottom Bitch' and the Acorn scene. Elementary School Musical was great, as was the Fishsticks episode, and not to forget Margaritaville of course. I loved Margaritaville! The list goes on. So if some people consider SP 'out' I don't agree — I consider it as hot as ever, I love it!

  13. I think South Park is better than ever, it keeps getting better and better. The recent seasons have definitely not been "out " seasons in my opinion. They've been terrific.

  14. Things might be getting a bit better. Robert Popper, who has worked on several seriously funny TV shows in England, has joined the writing staff. if you doubt it, catch one of the episodes of LOOK AROUND YOU now drifting about on the Adult Swim schedule.

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