SOUTH PARK: 'Ass Burgers'
The big question following South Park's mid-season finale was how Trey Parker and Matt Stone were going to follow up an ending that suggested the series had turned into everything it once mocked. Many speculated that a Russell T. Davies-esque reset button would be used, while others wondered whether everything from the previous episode would be glossed over as though it had never happened. South Park has been returned to normal from some spectacularly odd situations before - was it really so far-fetched that Stan's parents might have reunited while the series was off-air and he recovered his optimistic outlook?
To their credit, Parker and Stone not only refused to sweep the events from 'You're Getting Old' under the rug, but elaborated on them in such a way that only added more questions about where the series will go from here. Even if everything has returned to normal by the next episode, the final shot of 'Ass Burgers' was a bleak and audacious twist that could alter the series' underlying tone for as long as it is left hanging.
The episodes' opening scenes re-established Stan's melancholy through staging and sound design that isolated him from the environments and situations that were the cornerstones of his old life. He still had to get up in the morning for school, yet the place where he woke up was quiet and colourless. South Park has often used white as a differentiator between the inside and the outside, whether literally (colourful indoor environments and snowy outdoors) or socially (think of how many rich or corrupt characters have lived in light-coloured environments or worn pale clothes). The light greys and whites of the condo that Stan's newly single mother was renting were in sharp contrast to the bold colours of their old home, echoing the absence of warmth and the family's separation from their old way of life as part of the community.
Stan was equally distant from his old friends, who were acting much the same ever: placing stupid wagers, Cartman being offhandedly anti-semitic and generally getting into trouble. In a single twist of fate, Stan sees everything his life used to be based on as loud and hollow, noise shouting at him rather than drawing him into the excitement. An outburst in class leads to him being taken into Mister Mackey's office, whose counsel is to cheer up and stop being such a Debbie Downer, m'kay.
The advice is patently ridiculous, lacking all understanding for what Stan is going through, yet in a strange way, not entirely lacking merit. If the predominant theme in 'You're Getting Old' was about making a choice between suppressing yourself to fit in or risk becoming a jaded outcast, 'Ass Burgers' was a melancholy riposte about how nothing really changes despite the choices you make or how much you change, and that the best you can do is try and find some way of living with it. Just as the previous episode seemed motivated by Parker and Stone's admitted creative exhaustion at having to continue with South Park for two more years, even as they have moved into successful pastures new with their wildly acclaimed Broadway Musical. 'Ass Burgers' is easily read as them admitting that they have no choice but to carry on (at least until their contract is up in 2013) and try to make the best of it. It may just take a few more whiskeys than before.
As an extension of this, both of the episode's plots concerned themselves with the merits of wilful ignorance. If seeing the truth isolates you and sucks the happiness from your life, would it not have been preferable to keep the curtains drawn and stay in the dark? In his Aspergers therapy group, Stan is confronted with a group of people determined to prove to the world how crappy so much of what they enjoy really is, the problem being that they are the ones in hiding and trying to force their views on people leading perfectly happy lives without them. The Matrix parody may have been dated, but it worked: just as in those films, an ongoing question is whether it is better to live in a comfortable lie or accept a terrible truth. Plus, people love ragging on the sequels as easy cash-ins, when they're actually exceptionally deep expansions of the philosophy and story of the original, even if not as fresh or mind-blowing. If anything, one of their biggest problems was asking the audience to do too much work in looking for answers themselves, rather than having everything presented on a plate.
The second plot revolved around Cartman discovering that burgers given exposure to his gluteus maximus were infused with a flavour so irresistible that it threatened to put the town's other fast food joints out of business. It was a typically ridiculous story, based around a 'Aspergers/Ass-burgers' pun and whose main punchline seemed to be the conference of fast-food owners speculating with double-entendres as to what the secret to Cartman's flavour could be - possibly some kind of super Dutch oven? It was a fun little side-story, the kind of ludicrous scenario that the series has made its trademark, but also elegantly tied into the episode's big themes at the end. Were Kyle and co. better off not knowing how the burgers got their flavour, so long as they were enjoying them? He had made friends with Cartman, got a good business going, and the town's children had an alternative to their usual chain fast food. Wouldn't they have been happier had the curtain on Cartman's box remained closed?
The fallacy of believing anything really changes beyond one's own perception was also reflected in how the 'Cartman Burger' business collapsed for much the same reason as every other venture Cartman has undertaken: he is discovered as having based his success around something appalling and made to stop. That Stan came to base his hopes for change on Kyle and Cartman apparently becoming friends showed how mistaken he was in his belief that he had stayed the same while the world outside was different, rather than vice-versa. It's hardly the first time that those two nemeses have collaborated and have it all go horribly wrong - you only have to go back three episodes to find the most recent example.
By the same token, Stan's parents realised that divorce was only going to make life more difficult for everyone and it was probably better to stick out their problems, because trying to change things so late in life only risked ruining whatever good things they still had going for them. So it was back to their old house, their old marriage, their old routine... only not quite. Once you have seen the truth, it cannot be forgotten. Randy and Sharon now know that they are now trapped with each other, rather than ever being able to entertain the possibility of living in a naturally happy home. Stan is back in the old life he wanted, but can see it now for the illusion it is. Only the distortions of a bottle can put things back to how they really were, but only for a while.
It would be ridiculous for me not to point out the obvious irony in my saying all this when a major part of what I do is based around making the kind of judgments which Stan's eyes were opened to. As a critic, you're always faced with the truth that your opinion will be very different from that of the average person going to the cinema, watching TV or playing a game. Movies by the likes of Adam Sandler (to pick the person targeted in this episode) are successful, I think, because the people watching them don't need them to be good, just to be an easy way of unwinding after a hard day's work.
Is it remiss of me to criticise those movies for things that their core audience won't care about? Is it a critic's job to review material as they see it, or how it will be enjoyed by the average viewer? Just as Stan felt isolated by his seeing the world as turning to shit, so too can it sometimes be difficult to not be able to enjoy the same things as your peers. That isn't meant patronisingly or self-pityingly, but rather to contrast two different ways of seeing the same thing and emphasize the validity of 'Ass Burgers' central questions. Let's not forget that the majority of people will watch and enjoy this episode for nothing else than the abundance of farts, Cartman sticking burgers down his trousers and Stan getting involved in a Matrix parody. That it was terrific on both levels is testament to how, despite their apparent protestations, Parker and Stone still have plenty to offer the South Park fanbase.
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