Thursday, 9 June 2011

Some Kinda Britches Holocaust: South Park mid-season finale review


SOUTH PARK: 'You're Getting Old'

It's well documented that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are struggling to maintain much enthusiasm for South Park after fifteen seasons. This episode, the last before a mid-season break, felt like them taking the opportunity to voice their frustrations at having to push through that creative exhaustion, at least until their contract runs out in 2013.

As Sharon says in her argument with Randy, too often the series tells the same story over and over again, resetting the pieces at the end before starting all over again, in an ever more ridiculous way. Like most episodes, 'You're Getting Old' could be summed up in a soundbyte - 'Stan starts getting cynical after his tenth birthday and everything literally starts to look like shit!' - but had an unusual air of melancholy to it. Are Parker and Stone going to follow through on the cliffhanger they set up? It's easy to assume not. After all, the dynamics of the series would be drastically altered if so, perhaps even losing one of the key members of the cast. They ditched Kenny for a while, but since he died in every episode up to that point anyway, it's not as though his loss significantly changed anything. But Kyle and Cartman becoming friends? That's like Superman and Lex Luthor cosying up together. 

I suspect the first episode of the next half-season will be spent restoring things to the way they were - Comedy Central probably wouldn't be pleased if it didn't - but this finale felt like Stone and Parker's anti-authoritarian spirit for the first time being turned back on itself.
It's amazing to think that South Park has been going since 1997. I was eleven when it first aired and though it has always been around, the idea of it being on for over half my life comes as a shock. For one thing, I'm not surprised its creators are tired: it started out, after all, as a programme primarily revolving around the comedy value of crudely-animated swearing children and an alien satellite dish being inserted into a fat boy's anus. It has since expanded into fully fledged satire and mostly left the school behind, and only now has it perhaps realised that it has been guilty of many of the things it mocked other programmes of doing for such a long time.

Just as Stan hit his tenth birthday and discovered that a lot of the things he used to like were, well, shit, that identity crisis seemed to be echoed by the series itself. I mentioned in last week's review that it can be difficult to know which version of South Park is going to show up each week: is it going to be a heavy-handed social satire, a multi-part extravaganza, a character piece... while that versatility is what has kept it going for so long - let's not forget that last week's episode didn't feature the four main characters at all, and didn't seem particularly unusual - it has perhaps come at a cost to its sense of purpose.

Where it once mercilessly attacked the establishment, yet after fourteen years, it can hardly claim to be an outsider any more. The last time it caused a stir was when Comedy Central censored its depiction of the Prophet Mohamed, accidentally proving the creators' point, yet I wonder if it would have received the same amount of attention had the episode gone untouched. They had shown Mohamed before, after all, even if it was during a less turbulent time.

Of tonight's two stories, Randy's reflected the series' struggle with its sense of identity, while Stan's seemed to be about the dangers of slipping into an attitude where everything looks like shit after over a decade of calling out the crap in pop-culture. Of course, this being South Park, it wanted to make sure its viewers remembered that some things are complete shit: no-one will ever convince me that the movie trailers Stan was complaining about were supposed to be seen as anything other than turd-encrusted travesties. That being said, I would definitely go and see a movie where the President of the United States was a duck, or a dog, or something - maybe as a double-bill with The Simpsons' 'Hail To The Chimp'? 

The overriding message behind Stan suddenly discovering cynicism seemed to be that it's tiring being negative all the time, and complaining about everything and everyone else is easy when covering up an inability to know your own values or define the things you do appreciate. Stan's the perfect choice for this, because he's always been a blank slate: Kyle is defined by his religion and his principles, Cartman by his petulance and supervillainy, Kenny by his poverty and mysteriousness... yet though, or maybe because, Stan is the character whose point-of-view we adopt most often, he's also the character we know least well. He's the blandly normal one who, like the programme, looks at the insane events happening around him and sighs.

Speaking of the madness going on around him, Randy takes on the story which looks at the series' habit of jumping on the latest bandwagons to seem current and cool. Each episode is made in a very tight window before being put on air, which has led to it receiving a great deal of interest for referencing events very soon after they happened - consider Osama Bin Laden's death this season, or when they replayed Obama's inauguration speech only days after he was sworn in. Sharon's accusations that Randy is desperately trying to cling onto his youth by feigning interest in the latest trends - also an amusing reflection on how Randy is the master of the one-time crackpot scheme - cut equally close to the bone for a fourteen-year old television programme constantly drawing on recent real-life events for attention.

To judge the episode on its own terms, its point was as obvious and one-note as South Park's preaching has a tendency to be, but nevertheless got some solid laughs out of Randy's inherent ridiculousness - especially his acting like an old man when criticising Sharon for taking away Stan's CD - and the various references to Adam Sandler/Jim Carrey/Kevin James movies.

Whilst entertaining, I don't think the episode was meant to be seen as a stand-alone though: the montage ending, where Stan finds himself in the midst of his own existential crisis at losing his identity, his friends and apparently his parents, was a brave and sad note to end on for the summer, works because of its context within a fourteen-year old series. On its own, the shift in tone from shit-spewing ducks and trouser-stealing hillbillies to a little boy sitting alone by a lake, abandoned by everything and everyone he cared about, was a bit too sudden.

I found the episode more fascinating than funny, but am glad South Park ended on an episode which showed some of the intelligence and deconstructive spirit of old, even if it did have to turn that spirit back on itself to do so. I'm fascinated to see how Parker and Stone will handle the first episode on the series' return, and a little curious now whether they will even see out the full length of their contract. Can South Park carry on, knowing it has turned into everything it used to satirise?

BEST MOMENT: Randy imitates a moaning old man.


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