Thursday, 19 April 2012

Television - South Park 'I Should Never Have Gone Ziplining' review

Several reviews and comments on 'I Should Never Have Gone Ziplining' have slated the episode as one of the worst South Park has ever done, which seems strange even considering the internet's usual propensity for overreaction, because I found it pretty funny. Hardly a classic, but a simple premise executed with a reasonable number of laughs throughout and only really stumbling through excessive repetition of certain jokes ("Long story short...") in the middle act.

The difference might be that people who have never been on one of the tours portrayed in the episode - not necessarily ziplining, but sightseeing or hiking or anything involving a small group of people led by an overenthusiastic guide - might not understand how dreadful they can be with the wrong group, or a guide who really misjudges his act. Maybe Trey Parker and Matt Stone took such a tour in their youth - hard to imagine them having the time or desire to subject themselves to one in the past decade at least - because the episode pretty much nailed what happens when tour groups... go bad. (Cue dramatic music)
Tying the dreadful sensation of knowing you'll have to spend hours in the company of unbearable people - especially when crammed into a bus, or worse still, a shuttle - to the aesthetic of one of those exploitative survival series yielded decent comic returns from how such programmes get their kicks from turning mundane activities into increasingly nasty horror stories. Even though commenters on my Jewpacabra review though I was wrong to suggest its themes might have been unintentional, it would be a surprise if anyone could come up with any deeper readings of this episode than what was on the surface. Combine an anticipated day out with an insufferable group of people and an underwhelming activity, and you get a horror arguably worse than anything 'I Shouldn't Be Alive' can come up with: at least the people from that series get an adrenaline rush and a story to sell afterwards.

There was an enjoyable sense of absurd escalation to this episode as well, which is something recent South Parks have neglected: it's inherent to the parodied format, but the way everything built from the boys standing bored outside the school to a live action Cartman squirting projectile diarrhea over the side of a slow-moving boat was well paced and founded on a ludicrous, but basically coherent, series of events. Community's recent Pillows And Blankets tried a similar trick in its parody of the Ken Burns historical documentary, but worked less well for me (though was enjoyable) because it didn't do much with its format. 'I Should Never Have Gone Ziplining' made the parody an important part of the story being told - about the unbearable 'extremes' of a lousy tour group experience - whereas 'Pillows And Blankets' never seemed to connect the two in a meaningful way.

Admittedly, where Community suffered from trying to tell a personal story in a style that didn't suit it, South Park rarely asks its audience to connect to its characters in any meaningful way - although it has become expert at pulling off sucker-punch moments of sweetness - and could concentrate all its energy on building to a comic crescendo. The sequences moving inside the heads and bowels of the four boys were good for laughs each time, with Stan and Kyle forcing themselves to ingratiate despite deep rooted anger at being stuck with these people ("Dude, [bleep] you"), while Cartman's years of over-indulgence came back with a vengeance ("Dude, did you just s**t your pants?" "Ummm, no"). The mundanity of the first zipline was benefited from a minimalist approach, and Cartman's shout back to Kyle about how much it sucked paid off the gag, doubling it later with the sight of a limp Cartman slowly descending over a forest landscape and shouting "I am so f***ing bored!"

After a while, the episode began to reuse its material a few too many times, although having each member of the tour being unbearable in their own distinctive way - the elderly man whose abbreviated life story seemingly went on for hours; the guy who was really enjoying himself and couldn't stop asking questions; the pleasure everyone else seems to be taking in their idiotic interactions, making you feel all the more isolated - was an entertainingly identifiable touch for, again, anyone who has survived such a tour. (No two people are ever infuriating in the same way, which makes them all the worse for finding new ways of being loathsome). The problem with such people is that they are annoying whether being parodied or not, so the repetition of their habits quickly became tiresome.

The switch to live-action reenactment was an inspired touch, particularly with its distinctly low-budget aesthetic and actors hamming up everything from their line readings to facial expressions. As mentioned, the sight of live-action Cartman discharging over the side of the boat was glorious and horrifying, and the passing around of the cold sore - another effectively escalated comic device - put the perfect cap on a truly awful day. Kenny's death of boredom was also among his more tragic demises.

Mr. Hanky's arrival was a step too far: while the puns were amusing ('helicraptor', 'seven-turdy-seven', 'poo-choo express'), it was one of the few parts of the episode to come out of nowhere and felt like a lazy cop (crap?) out. Plus, Mr. Hanky is a Christmas Poo, so what's he doing turning up on a boat just after Easter? Having the boys be rescued by Jimbo, another returning character in a season full of them, would have made more sense given the likelihood of him hunting in the forest. Might have been an excuse to bring back Ned as well, who was always the funnier of the pair.

'I Should Never Have Gone Ziplining' wasn't up there with the best South Park can do - there has yet to be anything on a par with its brilliance from the end of its fifteenth year - but was a well-paced episode which escalated its simple premise to get some of the biggest laughs of the season. Despite the hyperbole being spread across the interwebs, this was far from the series' worst, but perhaps suffered from tackling a situation much of its viewership has been lucky enough not to endure. Instead, let's all just agree that blood-thirsty beavers never fail to be hilarious and leave it at that.

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