Thursday, 2 June 2011

Wouldn't Harm A Fry: South Park review


SOUTH PARK: 'City Sushi'

It's telling of how inconsistent South Park has become that it can take two of its funniest characters, Butters and the City Wok guy (did he have a name before last night?), put them to what could have been some entertaining concepts - Butters being diagnosed with multiple personality disorder by adults who don't have any concept of make-believe, and City Wok guy becoming infuriated as usual, this time at the opening of a Sushi restaurant next door to him - yet still end up falling flat.

Before spiraling out of control, the episode started strongly, with Butters' usual naïve over-enthusiasm triggering an 'Asian turf war', meaning a fight between the City Wok guy and a new Japanese restaurateur. A couple of good jokes came at the fact that these two seem to comprise the entire Asian population of South Park, notably in the street where they worked being designated 'Little Tokyo', again to City Wok guy's fury. After Butters is escorted home by the police, his parents decide to send him to a shrink, in a scene replete with very silly lines ("Does this mailman belong to you?"/"Well, it certainly isn't our parenting!"). Unfortunately, like one of the episode's central characters, there was a distinct split in personality between the beginning and the end.
Butters-centric episodes don't come around very often, possibly because there has yet to be one where the character has proven as memorable as when supporting the main quartet. Cartman and co. weren't in this episode at all, meaning Butters had to shoulder the responsibility for the main plot on his shoulders alone. There's no reason why that couldn't work - the idea of a good little boy with an overactive imagination whose well-meaning nature gets him into the most appalling and depraved situations is a funny one - but without at least one of the main set of boys to ground the situation, it can be difficult to engage with situations that become so implausibly exaggerated. Make no mistake, Butters is an over-the-top character, just in the opposite direction to normal: he's too sweet and too trusting, where South Park typically directs its excesses towards the darker end of the spectrum.

As for City Wok guy - maybe I should start calling him Lu Kim, but still think of him as City Wok guy - he couldn't be any more of a flat-out caricature, a spin on the Breakfast At Tiffany's Mickey Rooney Asian caricature who speaks in an incomprehensible accent and is constantly apoplectic with anger. (As he would be if he realised I'd just compared him to Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese character). The pay-off to the collision of tonight's two storylines, where City Wok guy was revealed to be one of Butters' shrink's multiple personalities, was surely a joke on the character's origins in the '60s trope of having caucasian actors play ridiculous versions of Asian stereotypes. It also brought to mind the Armin Tamzarian episode of The Simpsons which I mentioned in last week's Doctor Who review, although apart from the aforementioned in-joke at City Wok guy's expense, the episode had none of the thematic justification which let The Simpsons pull off the same trick.

Unfortunately, his story wasn't particularly funny either. As a background character, the 'shitty wok' gag is dumb enough to always get a laugh, but having it be one of the episode's main sources of humour was a terrible idea which led to tired variations on one-note material, such as neither City Wok guy nor the Japanese sushi man being able to understand each other's pronunciation of the work 'treaty'. The only vaguely amusing moment was when City Wok guy finally used the word 'shitty' in its proper context, but that was more a nice twist than genuine joke.

His attempts to undermine his Japanese competitor at the diversity presentation and at the top of the 'peace tower' were too predictable to earn any laughs. Programmes like Archer or South Park at its best can take storylines in what appears to be familiar directions, then turn the tables for comic effect. Here, even though the Japanese guy screamed his dismay at being portrayed in such a stereotypical manner as he committed suicide, everything played out as the signals suggested.

Butters' therapy sessions were marginally better, although survived on what initially seemed to be a neat bit of satire - overanxious parents' rush to medicate their children for perfectly normal behaviour - that never came to fruition. The twist of having the therapist be the one with multiple personalities, manipulating Butters into performing criminal acts only to then change back to his therapist persona and believe that Butters was the instigator of the situation, was cleverly played and a rare moment of subversion, but quickly got out of hand as the therapist's more aggressive personalities became dominant, without finding the jokes to match. The medication aspect of the story was abandoned after two scenes, losing with it any link to reality. And as for calling the therapist 'Dr. Janus'...

South Park has exhausted the trick of taking its stories to hyper-extremes of madness and this episode would have most likely found more success by staying grounded, focusing on the satirical aspects of the Butters story and giving less time to the City Wok subplot. There was no reason to have the twist of City Wok guy's 'real' identity being revealed, as it taught us nothing new about the character, nor did it explain any prior behaviour in common between him and Butters' therapist (of which there was none). It was an insincere twist for the sake of having one - plus a Psycho parody, as though that joke hadn't been run into the ground years ago. The occasional good line was a reminder that South Park can still produce terrific comedy and sharp satire, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell which version of the show is going to turn up each week.

Best Moment: The reveal of Dr. Janus' multiple personality disorder was a clever twist, even if it was subsequently wasted.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought this episode was funny. The look on Butters face when he's breaking into the vault was priceless.