Thursday, 29 March 2012

Television - South Park 'Faith Hilling' review

Last night's South Park approximated real-life quotes from the Republican candidates, but unlike 'About Last Night', the episode from the twelfth season which pulled a similar trick with Barack Obama less than a day after he was elected President, there was little effort to use them in any particularly important way in the story. At best, there might have been a thematic link between the way 'Faith Hilling' skewered the impermanence of meme culture and the way in which the Republican primaries have been largely reduced to the dissemination of appalling soundbytes over the internet, rather than any in-depth political discussion.

Such a point would seemingly ignore how its the extreme views of the candidates themselves which has brought out this situation, with none but hardline right-wingers seemingly engaged by the debates on a serious level. If intention, it was also a point that required a fair bit of speculation on the part of the viewer to seep through a muddle of other possible interpretations, few of them developed as fully as they needed to be.
This would of course have entirely forgiveable had the episode been funnier, but there were only a handful of laughs scattered throughout, one of which coming from a cat meme which was probably exhausted for all who had seen it before and even for those viewing it for the first time, it was repeated far too many times. (The behind-the-cage view was amusing, but again drained by excessive repetition). Sometimes comedies can repeat the same gag over and over again, getting funnier each time, but a cat seeming to say 'Old Long Johnson' wasn't funny, clever or absurd enough to begin with.

Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes works because it becomes more ridiculous each time he does it, with the effect multiplied with the pull back to him stumbling around what can only be described as an entire minefield of rakes. Memes like the cat burn themselves out after one viewing, because the joke comes from a ludicrous interpretation of a cat making a silly noise. There's no escalation there, it's designed for one-time consumption.

That point also reinforces why a central part of this episode didn't work. Cartman and co. are distressed when their preferred meme, 'Faith Hilling', soon goes out of fashion, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone seemed similarly unimpressed with how memes come and go just as quickly, but this seem to miss the point that the very idea of a meme, in the modern context, is driven by rapid cultural dissemination and disappearance. They're one-note jokes or videos, an idea to be enjoyed quickly, passed on and then forgotten. No-one is pretending these are serious cultural movements whose followers are surprised to see vanish from the Twitter trending list.

It's possible that Parker and Stone might have been targeting the culture allowing memes to flourish, rather than the idea of them as individual cultural pieces. If so, it's no easier to detect exactly what their point was: if they disliked how it was a culture encouraging a short attention span, their arguments seemed more directed at the already-conscious pointlessness of the memes themselves. If it was the culture's habit for reducing important events like the Republican debates to soundbytes and ridiculous images, that ignores how those images and soundbytes are often chosen as part of a wider political debate.

Arguably the worst aspect of this is how it ignores any sense of context, but the quotes have to be cut-and-dry obvious (extreme views on abortion or homosexuality) on their own terms to be meme'd: they're obvious without context and offer a jumping point for wider political debate on blogs or professional articles. Pretending memes are the only way in which this generation is interacting with the world seems extraordinarily short-sighted, especially for the usually pin-sharp Parker and Stone.

If I've done more dissecting than actual reviewing of this episode, it's because beyond its mess of possible  themes, there was little to talk about. The recurring sight gag of memers (word?) being struck by trains, including the age-old joke about the train taking an age to reach them but them not getting out of the way in the meantime, was never particularly funny, and when the train began appearing in increasingly unlikely places, the impending gag was set up in too obvious a manner for the intended surprise to come off. Marginally more successful was the callback to Cartman's own cat, just as the previous episode remembered Stan had a senile grandfather. Bringing back forgotten characters has been a recurring trend in this season's first three episodes, which given their struggle to come up with strong topics for comedic dissection, is increasingly looking like a distraction device more devious than anything Twitter or a wailing cat have to offer.



Unknown said...

I don't think politics had anything at all to do with this episode. Actually, it seems much more likely that the message of "pandering" applied more exclusively to the show itself, based on the transcript of the show's final message:

"And so in the face of war, a little boy reminds us all what being human really means. The message is unclear, but it doesn't matter. As long as you give the audience a song, celebrity bashing, and Republican hopefuls dancing around with boobies. It's called "pandering," and all over the country people are--"

Note that Republicans are only passingly mentioned in a list of trite episode-ingredients. I was actually looking for a political connection at the end of the episode because it IS USUALLY there, but this time, it just failed to materialize.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks for your comment!

As you said, I don't think the Republican debate was the episode's primary focus, but certainly seemed a part of the overall message about how such events are digested by social media etc. these days, where it's all about the soundbytes. Certainly ties in, however loosely, with the quote you selected.

That said, this was an episode packed with what felt like a lot of very loosely connected ideas, making it difficult to believe even Matt and Trey seemed entirely certain of what they were trying to say.