Sunday, August 24, 2008

REVIEW: South Park Still Has Its Sparkle!

[ARTICLE written for Toon Zone News - 08-18-2008]

There are some laws you should never try to break. No man should try going faster than light; no dog should be for Christmas. And, of course, no show should continue past a seventh season and attempt to maintain credibility.

But oh no, as with all rules, there has to be one defiant exception; there has to be one pugnacious chap who stands in the corner and refuses to conform to social expectations.

And you can’t really get more defiant or pugnacious than South Park, Comedy Central’s long-running series, which has just had its eleventh season box set released.

For those who have just stepped out of a time capsule from the year 1996, South Park is an award-winning, enigmatic animation comedy that fuses scatological hijinks with clever sociological quandaries, all played out on a smug bed of dramatic pastiche. It stars four young eight-year-old school kids who live in the small snow-coated town of South Park. Beyond this basic premise, everything is very much up for grabs, and anything in our global civilization is a target for mockery.

I must confess it’s a show I’ve always had mixed feelings about. I’ve never been a particular fan of shows that try shock or gross-out tactics. South Park, however, comes with an undercurrent of clever and devious writing that counterpoints the often simple shock value.

Season Eleven is no different. Each episode is sick, topical and surprisingly smart. You may not find all of their aspects funny, and you may not agree with the social commentary, but you can’t deny it's a very clever package that is a great deal deeper than most media outlets would like to presume.

If humor is subjective, South Park is doubly so. As creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone say on the mini-commentary for "More Crap," the episode you’ll probably either love or loathe, some humor you either get or you don’t. In this specific episode Randy’s need to "win" the title of largest defecation ever was not something I found shocking or funny—but I did find how the show used this simple story to send up Bono from U2. Quite often with South Park, if you get past the gross-out factor you'll find a well crafted idea lurking behind it, and this is certainly true throughout season eleven.

Perhaps season eleven's biggest blessing (or curse if you bought it on the standalone DVD) is "ImaginationLand," a three-part story that with its abundance of humorous fantasy pop-icons, smart pseudo-philosophy on the importance of imagination, and usual deluge of silly, sick antics, attains a near-perfect equilibrium.

And the duds? Well for me, South Park fails when it over-focuses on its pop-culture send up. The 24-inspired episode "The Snuke" is just a little too focused on its subject matter to carry its usual dynamic energy, and some of the gags are a little routine for South Park. (Hillary Clinton is yet another female celebrity in South Park to have her genitalia as the gag?) That said, it has a great final Cartman scene that very much twists any sensible message the show was offering. "D-Yikes" again is an episode that falls a little flat, spending too much time mocking 300 than in delivering the gags.

But overall, it's a good season offering all the usual kinds of South Park stuff that I’ve come to enjoy over the last eleven years.

The DVD set is a simple yet effective affair. The box set is neatly packaged and the interactive menus aren’t overtly invasive. Less successful are the ten-minute mini-commentaries that Trey and Matt offer on each episode. On one hand, it’s nice to have concise commentaries devoid of pointless waffle; on the other hand, Trey and Matt are interesting, funny and extremely relevant to the show’s production. Bottom line: the commentaries are very tasty but too short.

I’m a little surprised and perhaps a tad irritated that South Park could remain so good for so long. A show I once predicted to be a passing fad has managed to remain fresh, relevant and, most importantly, funny. I’m not sure how they manage to do it, but I don’t see any real loss of quality in this South Park nugget.

As perceptive as it is childish, South Park is content to stride confidently onward: smirking, farting and ridiculing the world around it, while remaining as ugly and pugnacious as ever.