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"South Park" Season 12: More Messages, Fewer Laughs

by on March 9, 2009

As South Park rumbles into its thirteenth season, Season 12 has been released on DVD: 14 episodes on three discs. South Park shows few signs of stopping any time soon and, admirably, steadfastly even, it refuses to succumb to the lures of lazy formula. If Seasons 10 and 11 showed Matt Stone and Trey Parker at their most creative, satirical and funny, then Season 12 takes a plunge into much darker waters. It seems South Park has grown up a bit; by its creators own admission, there are a number of episodes that sacrifice laughs in order to drive the social or political point home. The show doesn’t exactly suffer as a result, but there are certainly fewer laugh-out-loud moments here than in Season 11.

You can roughly divide the episodes into three groups. There are social-comment episodes, which are sometimes almost didactic and angry in tone, and which strongly satirize real-world issues (“Tonsil Trouble”, “Britney’s New Look”, “Canada on Strike”, “Over Logging”, “The China Problem”, and “About Last Night”). There are big, silly adventures, which typically send the boys to space, or Peru, or wherever (“Major Boobage”, “Eek, A Penis”, “Super Fun Time”,” Pandemic”, and “Pandemic 2: The Startling”). And there are what Matt and Trey like to call their version of Peanuts, which centers life at South Park Elementary (“Breast Cancer Show Ever”, Elementary School Musical”, and “The Ungroundable”).

Of the satirical episodes, “Britney’s New Look” is by far the hardest hitting. Harassed by the media, Britney Spears retreats to a hotel in South Park where she tries to commit suicide by blowing her head off, but she survives, even though she’s horribly disfigured by the loss of her head. Stan and Kyle take pity on her, but the rest of America relentlessly continues to track and comment upon her every move. Her lack of head is taken as a fashion statement. This episode makes for quite unpleasant viewing and is at times very uncomfortable to watch. Matt and Trey clearly wanted to show one of the darkest and scariest parts of modern culture naked and ugly: a sort of televisual equivalent to Brecht. On that level it succeeds, but I can easily imagine that episode alienating the type of South Park fan who watches it for its fart gags.

Another relentlessly dark episode is “The China Problem”, in which Cartman worries about Chinese attempts at hegemony after seeing the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. The subplot revolves around the boys’ real trauma after watching Indiana Jones get “raped” by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In a series of imagined scenes, we are made to watch Lucas and Spielberg actually rape Indy. I think this episode is less successful than “Britney’s New Look” because, ultimately, the target of Matt and Trey’s ire is rather small and insignificant. The issue is not really serious enough to warrant such hard-hitting and not-particularly-funny satire.

This is also a problem that dogs “Tonsil Trouble”: the idea of Cartman getting AIDS and then giving it to Kyle, just to make the point that AIDS doesn’t receive as much attention as cancer now-a-days, is in poor taste, even by South Park‘s twisted standards. The chief problem is that it’s just not funny. “Canada on Strike”, which is a straight satire of the 2007-8 writers’ strike, and “About Last Night”, which aired the night after Barack Obama’s historic Presidential victory, also suffer from not having many laughs. The casting of Obama and McCain as members of an Ocean’s Eleven-style group of elite thieves didn’t strike me as particularly clever either. It just serves to trivialize the whole thing, and is not one of South Park‘s finer moment. “Over Logging”, which takes a look at what the world would be like if the internet suddenly went off line, is much more successful and features some acute observations about how dependent we’ve become on the world wide web (he says, on a cartoon website!). There’s one particularly shocking image of Stan’s dad, Randy Marsh in this episode, so parents be warned, I wouldn’t recommend getting this for anyone under 18. A lot of these satirical episodes are short on laughs, so what you make of them will probably depend on how receptive you are to whatever point is being made. There are no classics here, but nonetheless I’d count “Britney’s New Look” as essential viewing.

The big adventure episodes focus on some unusually obscure or miniscule issues. “Major Boobage” sees Kenny and Kyle’s dad getting high from inhaling cat’s urine and then parodies the ultimate 1980s geek animated film, Heavy Metal; it’s moderately amusing. They get the animation spot on in those sequences, even down to the graininess of the film. (The set comes with an informative “making of” bonus featurette about it.) In “Eek, A Penis”, Mrs. Garrison regrets her sex change and seeks to genetically engineer her old male appendage. Meanwhile, Cartman somehow becomes a school teacher and visits a Dangerous Minds-style inner-city school where he disguises himself as a Mexican and uses the Spygate scandal to preach the virtues of cheating. In “Super Fun Time” the fourth grade visits a Pioneer Village where no one will break character (it’s 1864); Cartman and Butters sneak off to a pleasure arcade, and the village is taken hostage by Die Hard-style villains. It’s mildly diverting, if a little average. In the big, two-part “Pandemic” the boys persuade the monotonic, pessimistic Craig (who is hilarious) to invest in them becoming a Peruvian pan-flute band because such bands are everywhere and seem to sell a lot of CDs. This leads to a big adventure involving Homeland Security and giant guinea pigs. Again, this is amusing enough, but not classic South Park; it is nothing compared to something like Imagination Land.

If these episodes suffer from anything, it’s probably the sense that Matt and Trey’s bugbears are fairly parochial things. On the one hand, there’s always a certain delight in deconstructing the minutiae of life a la Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld; but on the other, you wonder whether narrowing the satirical lens to such an extent might put South Park at risk of irrelevance.

Finally, there are the three episodes I’ve grouped in the Peanuts category: “Breast Cancer Show Ever”, “Elementary School Musical”, and “The Ungroundable”. These don’t really try to satirize anything but instead focus on the characters and their relationships in their normal school setting. These smaller-scale affairs were probably my favorite episodes of this run because it didn’t feel like a political message was being rammed down my throat, and they still contained plenty of wry social comment. The Goth kids who are featured in “The Ungroundable” are especially well observed. Cartman is also at his cowardly, sniveling, despicable best in “Breast Cancer Show Ever” as he does anything to get out of fighting Wendy because he is scared of being beaten up by a girl. “Elementary School Musical” ostensibly takes a swipe at that modern abomination High School Musical, but under the surface has much more profound things to say about the nature of fads and that one cool kid at school who all the girls fancy. This is really the sort of thing I’d love to see more of in South Park. I get the sense that they’ve come as far as they can with the surreal adventures and the shocking stuff, but there is much more to be done in the playground. It was just a pleasure to watch these more character-driven, nuts ‘n’ bolts, almost sit-com style episodes.

There are a few extras on the three discs. There are three making-of featurettes about specific episodes (“Major Boobage”, “Super Fun Time”, and “About Last Night”) narrated by production staff. They are watchable and interesting, especially to people interested in the animation process. Each episode also has a mini-commentary track with Matt Stone and Trey Parker. These last about five to ten minutes, and they talk about the main ideas behind each episode. I found them very listenable and, as you might expect, they are funny in parts. The fact that it is only a few minutes per episode rather than the entire length actually works pretty well .They are very candid about moving on to the next episode, and this sense of proportion is welcome.

I’d give this set a mild recommendation. Season 12 was a slight dip in form from the high standards of Seasons 10 and 11 because it does not really contain any stone cold classics, and several episodes are short on laughs and long on the didactic. This is not to say this set is bad by any stretch of the imagination—even the worst episode is above average when compared to most other shows—it is just not quite as good as Season 11.

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