Thursday, 15 March 2012

Television - South Park 'Reverse Cowgirl' review




Like The Simpsons, the size of South Park's ensemble is one of its biggest strengths. After sixteen seasons, we've a good sense of what the town believes in and the sort of people inhabiting it, along with enough peripheral characters for one to occasionally have his mother's innards sucked out because he forgot to put the loo seat back down. 'Reverse Cowgirl' didn't offer much we haven't seen countless times before on the series, mixing scatology, satire and stupidity in one swirling bowl (I don't think I'm going to take this metaphor any further), but it's a credit to the continued inventiveness of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as well as the richness of the town they've created, that even formula episodes like this one can still be hugely entertaining.

Sixteen seasons into The Simpsons and it was looking a long way past its prime. (Twenty-three seasons in has reduced it to this). At the same point in South Park's life, albeit with fewer episodes produced overall, Parker and Stone continue to find potent topics to run through the series' distinctive filter. Part of that success is built on how well they've expanded the scope of the programme from being about four sweary little boys to an entire town of lunatics. Simpsons stories rarely strayed from the eponymous family, but an entire town of possible lead characters at Parker and Stone's disposal, South Park could keep up its strong run for a very long time.
 
Stan, Cartman, Kyle and Kenny are kept on the sidelines in 'Reverse Cowgirl', an increasingly common occurrence in recent seasons. The boys are fun, but we've seen enough of them by now that using them only occasionally is a more potent trick than bringing them out time and time again. Stan and Cartman are great at commenting on the action as it happens, with Stan as straight man and Cartman as caustic abuser, even while not offering much in the way of participation. (Kyle and Kenny tend to require storylines more specifically tailored to them).
  
This episode was all about Clyde, in whose company we've spent very little time, making him a perfect subject for someone to have their parent flushed down an unprotected bowl. South Park has a wealth of third-tier characters, always hanging around but never sketched out in any detail, who can be easily called upon to suffer the kind of indignity that would be too much for the more fleshed-out supporting cast of Randy, Butters, Mr. Garrison, Timmy, etc. to endure with slightly altering the fabric of the series.

Whilst Clyde has chatted to the boys every now and again, this was the first time his home life has been put on-screen, with his mother turning out to be a most loathsome harridan, willing to humiliate her son first in front of his friends and then his entire class just because he left the loo seat up. On the downside, poor Clyde. On the upside, it allowed Butters to deliver one of the episode's biggest laughs with "My grandma's from Virginia!" upon mishearing, in his innocent way, the word 'vagina'.

This being South Park, it wasn't long before his minor crime came back to bite Clyde on the arse (or, more specifically, suck his mother's guts out through hers) with her delightfully humiliating death. The sight of her body still stuck down the pan, legs in the air, at her funeral was terrific, as were the eulogies that quickly descended into an argument between the sexes as to whether it was the man's responsibility to put the seat down, or the woman's to check it was down before getting started. Wouldn't it be fairly noticeable at the moment of the woman sitting down anyway? I digress.
  
The argument turned out to be a bluff for the episode's real satirical focus, which was the government creating up an initiative to 'protect' citizens from the dangers of dropping a load in the privacy of their homes. This meant seatbelts at first - I don't see how that would help, but maybe that was the point - and later full cavity inspections and cameras. The sequence with the pervert masturbating whilst watching the TSA screens was as hysterical as it was painful to watch, with every sound effect heightened to horrific effect. The splurge of the lubricant was a winner, as was the man continuing his 'stroke' as Cartman took hostages in protest.

There isn't much need to carefully analyse the episode's messages, because they were delivered pretty bluntly: the TSA were moved from transportation to toilet safety, emphasizing how quickly people adapt to increasingly impractical and embarrassing ordeals, making them part of the norm and allowing government to bring in new ones at will. Only when those ordeals are shown to be grossly ineffective - as in the 'terrorist' Cartman managing to break the system - do people rediscover their desire to reclaim their rights to privacy.

As a gamer, and knowing Cartman and co. are too, perhaps a more directly appropriate - if somewhat more niche - target might have been the games' industry's increasingly restrictive digital rights enforcement, punishing legitimate customers while doing nothing to stop pirates enjoying the content hassle-free. Using the TSA was funny, but perhaps a little less potent a subject than it needed to be: I'm sure plenty of people would argue that increased security at airports is justified, even if the lengths it goes to are sometimes not.

Everything involving the sue-ance was pretty flat, seemingly created to justify the use of that one uninspired pun. It loosely linked in with the episode's thesis about people in authority taking advantage of those who have suffered, with the lawyer predictably milking Clyde for every penny he made from his mother's death and the idea of summoning the dead for trial showing disrespect for privacy extending even beyond the grave, but the only joke to carry any weight was the pay-off to Butter's apparent confusion over which way to sit whilst 'taking a Harington', along with the real purpose of the long-abused glory hole. Much better was Clyde's final middle-finger to his mother's memory (who even came back from the dead to nag him) to see the episode out, a fun reflection of the series' anti-authoritarian spirit. Good to have you back, South Park.

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