SOUTH PARK: 'Crack Baby Athletic Association'
My coverage of South Park begins with an episode which epitomises the programme's biggest weaknesses and strengths. On one hand, where its moralising was once done through increasingly ridiculous metaphors, these days it tends to make its points more on-the-nose. Cartman starting up a 'sport' by filming crack babies falling over themselves to get a small ball of cocaine and keeping all the money for himself started out as a pretty funny reflection of the NCAA, although then had to go and make it explicit by having him visit the dean of the University of Colorado Boulder to ask his advice to ask about his college basketball slaves, before working out a deal for a videogame with EA Sports (and an hilarious likeness of real-life company head Peter Moore).
On the other hand, the show's inherent silliness continues to keep it above water. The dialogue in the dean's office was eye-rollingly blatant, but became slightly more tolerable when delivered by Cartman dressed as an old Southern plantation owner, complete with handlebar moustache, and concluding with an adapted version of the old catchphrase "Screw you, I'm going home!" Since he pulled an "I'm just big-boned" last week, I'm wondering whether this is Trey Parker and Matt Stone making deliberately daft callbacks, or just falling back on old jokes for easy laughs. Both of the programme's creators are said to be tired of doing the show and while last night's wasn't a vintage episode by a long shot, but at least had enough laughs to avoid that weariness coming through.
Although the episode was obviously about the NCAA - it said so itself - I'm English and therefore had little frame of reference for how the sport works. On the other hand, my first thought when Cartman began talking about how the 'sport' would benefit the crack babies, despite neither them nor their parents receiving a share of the proceeds, was that it was satirising a controversial situation currently happening in the UK, which I assumed must have been going on in the US as well, where employers are taking graduates, who are already tens of thousands of pounds in debt, on 'work placement' positions in lieu of offering them full jobs, effectively getting free labour. With the effects of a decade of financial profligacy at state and private level finally coming home to roost in recent years, the problem has become endemic and with paid positions at a premium, graduates looking to work in certain industries are being made to commit months of their time to unpaid work just to be in with a slight chance at salaried work.
I don't know if this is a problem which extends far beyond the UK's shores, but that alternate reading puts into perspective one of the problems when South Park takes that step too far in making its points. The NCAA is not exactly a widely known sport over here and while the episode laid out its grievances clearly enough to be understood by all, it was a much more engaging watch when it was left to the audience to fill in the blanks with their own experiences. I suppose it could be argued that having Cartman's association named the 'CBAA' made it clear where its guns were aimed from the start, but as someone unfamiliar with the sport, I didn't notice that reference at first. Even if it would be obvious to those more aware than myself, the CBAA was at least initially a parody of the NCAA, rather than involving the actual association. While still operating within the realm of metaphor, it was still up to the audience to connect the dots, a more satisfying and universal way for Parker (who writes every episode of South Park as far as I'm aware) to make his points.
On a story level, Kyle seemed a bit too easily taken in by Cartman, especially considering the animosity which has long existed between the two. I didn't buy that his mind would be changed almost instantly by the amount of money Cartman was bringing in and the assurances that it was ultimately all for the babies' good were just too ridiculous to be credible. This might have been part of Parker's point about how the NCAA justifies itself, but it still didn't ring true, especially when it was the most suspicious and morally righteous of the boys being turned to the dark side.
That said, that problem ranked pretty low on the credibility scale when you consider even for a moment how the logistics of Cartman's 'sport' were supposed to work, or where he was getting his money from. We've come to expect those kinds of liberties to be taken though (this is a programme which has featured a marijuana-addicted towel after all) , whereas the questionable character writing was somehow more irritating. It also seemed odd to me that Cartman used the prospect of bacon to lure Kyle, and it worked. Considering how important his religion is to the character, this seemed a particularly weird twist to have taken.
Nevertheless, all that led to one of the episode's best gags, which was Kyle constantly trying to explain himself away to Stan, who steadfastly refused to react until delivering the killer blow that the excuses he was being offered were exactly the ones he'd expect to hear from Cartman. For Kyle of all people, this was the one thing he could never accept (again, making it all the more character-breaking that he'd gone into business with his big-boned nemesis in the first place) and his subsequent attempts to push the CBAA into more respectable territory only inspired Cartman to ever more devious depths ("That is why we needed a Jew doing the book-keeping!"). As a parody of Wall Street, it was pretty half-hearted, but went just far enough to get a few chuckles at the '80s stockbroker shirts that Cartman and Kyle wore throughout.
The subplot about Slash being a kind of hard-rock Santa Claus represented South Park's affection for dragging the myth of celebrity into ever more absurd and abstract directions, but it worked pretty well even if the only big laugh was Stan taking disbelief at his friends only just realising that Slash was a make-believe figure (and that it was one of their dads, in fact, playing lead guitar for Guns N' Roses to maintain the illusion) when he'd known for years. Despite only appearing in a handful of scenes, Stan was the standout character in this episode for me. He only had a few lines of dialogue, but they all worked brilliantly, as did the moments when he just sat in silence and listened to Kyle desperately trying to get affirmation that his working for Cartman wasn't the shattering of his moral standards it so clearly was. The Slash-as-Santa concept was more of a funny idea than a source of actual laughs, but it gave the episode a sense of lunacy to offset its heavy-handed polemicising elsewhere.
'Crack Babies Athletic Association' could have done with being a bit funnier and whole lot less literal, but was still a divertingly enjoyable enough half-hour. Cartman is one of the small screen's great villains and unlike the exaggeration that a lot of other breakout characters have suffered (see The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon), both the character and programme have been going to extreme levels of ridiculousness since the beginning, with enough charisma to make it charming rather than grating. Whenever Cartman's on form, South Park is on form, which was one of last night's saving graces and probably will be for much of the season to come.
Best Moment: Stan finally reacts to Kyle's self-justification by reminding him that his excuses are exactly what Cartman would say.
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