Thursday, 3 November 2011

Television - South Park 'One Percent' review

Growth seems to be a recurring theme since South Park returned. The series has always enjoyed a fair amount of elasticity in terms of its setting, moving from from small town stories to epics about the summoning of Cthulu or the invasion of Imaginationland, but its four central characters have remained more or less the same as when we first met them - with the possible exception of Cartman's psychosis being kicked up a few notches with the Scott Tenerman situation, and the abandonment of the dead Kenny jokes.

With the 'You're Getting Old' and 'Assburgers' two-parter bringing a wisp of tragedy to Stan Marsh's otherwise blank slate existence, 'One Percent' seemed similarly taken with the idea of forcing Cartman to accept the need for growth and change. Who knows if Matt and Trey will follow it through - it looks as though Stan's drinking habit has been left behind - but even in one of the less hilarious episodes since the series' spectacular return a few weeks ago, the idea carried considerable weight (no pun intended) in this half-hour at least.
Speaking of growth and change, those are two things which President Obama promised and which he has struggled to see through. (I'm ridiculously proud of that transition, by the way). 'One Percent' offered a scathing, if directionless, observation of the mess he found himself thrown into upon taking office. There are the protesters, barely sure of what they stand for but certain that they have been hard done by and putting the blame entirely at the door of the financial institutions, which they have no idea how to change even though something must clearly be done. Then there are the bankers and traders, screaming unfair vilification and blaming political interference and outside forces. In the midst of this havoc, there's President Obama, trapped between those calling him Wall Street's puppet for bailing out the banks and claiming the media are giving him an easy ride because of his ethnicity, and those who say he's not being tough enough.

No-one knows what the solution is, but everyone knows they're angry about a problem, so might as well get that anger heard and hope some answers appear along the way. In South Park's world, this translates to the school having to take extra P.E. lessons because Cartman alone has dragged the average fitness score down to the worst in the country. Naturally, Cartman's view is that since the score was an average, everyone has to put in their time and get through it. Everyone else, recognising that their pain was down to only a tiny percentage of the student body (well, one chubby little boy), believes that he deserves to suffer rather than them.

The episode laid out its ideas pretty well, even if they never built to anything other than the revelation of no-one really knowing what was going on. The student body had a right to be angry with an evidently flawed system that allowed the 'one percent' to indulge itself and then share out the pain once the consequences hit, but their proposal that the errant element in their midst be treated differently was portrayed as no better an idea: after all, how high a number is needed before those less guilty have to carry some of the burden? Ten percent? Fifty percent? Cartman is still part of the school after all, even if he's a troublesome part. Such divisions don't exactly sit well in the socialist ideas often proposed by those making the loudest noise.

Even then, there are those who want everyone even loosely associated with the 'guilty' party to take their share of the blame as well, hence the older boys - representing  a mathematically questionable '83%' - turning up to claim that Cartman's whole year, not just him, was to blame. This led to a clunky class war gag - geddit? Different meanings of 'class'? - and a more effective one about how meaningless such ideas as 'the 99%' really are, driven primarily by the need to express fury rather than a cogent, well-considered point. The media and police, meanwhile, are on hand to blow everything way out of proportion, an idea conveyed far too bluntly to be particularly potent.

Meanwhile, someone was kidnapping Cartman's stuffed toys and 'murdering' them individually in front of his eyes. This led to some enjoyably dark sight gags, like Clyde Frog nailed to a tree with the word 'vengeance' scrawled beneath him in red, or the stuffed purple dragon - sorry, I forgot to note down the specific names - having its head blown off. The big reveal, that Cartman was the person responsible everything, didn't make much logistical sense (how did he wire up all the traps while outside with Token?) but did offer the interesting idea that some part of his fractured psyche - let's not forget how far into his delusions he can go (Jennifer Lopez hand, anyone?), so it was at least somewhat consistent that he could do all these things and then forget immediately afterwards - was willing him to finally take responsibility for his actions and discard the old toys which he used to tell himself that he was never the one to blame and always totally kewwwwl.

Maybe there was a parallel with the financial situation, suggesting the bankers need to stop blaming other people (their puppets) and buckle down and be honest about their part in the whole mess, but the link is a pretty tenuous one and probably not intentional. The episode's two plots - the '99%' protest and the Cartman toy murder mystery - felt only tangentially related, which ironically enough made for a viewing experience that felt very divided. I enjoyed Cartman being taken in a relatively new direction and the broad points made about the messy nature of both sides' reactions to the recession, but there was neither the laser-eyed focus nor the big laughs to put 'One Percent' in the same league of greatness as this season's previous highlights. As with its subject matter, the intentions were admirable, but too scattershot to be as strong and clear as they needed to be.

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