Thursday, 5 April 2012

Television - South Park 'Jewpacabra' review

How much can really be read into an episode of South Park? This is definitely a programme which revels in its ability to disguise valid social and political commentary beneath layer upon layer of unhinged insanity, but sometimes you have to stop and wonder how much meaning creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone genuinely intended to thread into the narrative. At what point does the sight of a boy, smeared with blood and dressed as an Easter bunny, lying in the woods and dreaming up an anti-semitic mishmash of Biblical mythology stop being about religion, or belief systems, and just exist for the sake of a ridiculous, knowingly appalling situation?

More than most weeks, I'm wondering how valid my reading of 'Jewpacabra' really is - on the one hand, the story repeatedly returns to similar ideas and motifs in the way that a developing theme should. On the other, South Park is rarely subtle about what it wants to say, and if this was an episode to be taken at more than face value, it certainly demanded an uncharacteristic level of work from the audience to unpack it.
I don't expect most people watch the series looking to analyse it. The commentaries Parker and Stone throw in are fun, but essentially sideshows: this is basically the same delightfully offensive, potty-mouthed comedy it always has been, playing off the sweetness and simplicity of the cut-out visual style against the unrestrained nature of the content. Thing is, as Parker and Stone have grown in confidence as writers, they've massively grown their show's scope and ambition. Originally focused on four boys, it now lives up to its name through a willingness to put any of the town's populace at the centre of a story. The town itself often only represents a starting point, with some of the more expansive episodes reaching across the United States, or sometimes the globe.

The schoolboy sense of humour remains, but is guided in increasingly deliberate directions towards the key affairs of the day. Why else place such importance on the six-day episode turnover, other than for the ability to keep the stories as current as possible, such as the quotes from the Republican debates last week? This is Easter week and the beginning of Passover, and while most series will do holiday specials without a second thought, it's a little difficult to believe that people with such stinging views on religion as South Park's creators would be willing to let such an opportunity pass without throwing in a little subversion for good measure.

'Jewpacabra', whether intentionally or not, touches on the hollowness of belief systems and how people are willing to buy into whatever crazy theory is thrown their way by chance, either to fulfil a self-image or explain away difficult circumstances without having to accept the truth. The episode opens with a tracking shot of Kyle getting breakfast as his mother explains Passover in the background. As Kyle walks past the door, we see Cartman sitting next to Mrs Broflovski, feigning interest, one of the episode's best visual gags. We know as well as Kyle does that Cartman is up to something, and sure enough, one dead bird later and there's talk of a mythical, blood-sucking Jewpacabra on the loose, just in time for a supermarket-sponsored Easter egg hunt.

Cartman convinces the supermarket management to help him track down the 'Jewpacabra' based on the flimsiest of flimsy evidence, heading to a team of possibly inbred 'experts' (via a fantastic waterslide in Nassau) for help. When the supermarket execs believe Cartman is who the Jewpacabra is really after, they leave him as a sacrifice in the middle of the woods, dressed in a bunny costume. The experts drug him, believing him to be a 'three foot tall bunny man', and he hallucinates a distinctly Cartman-esque (and gorgeously animated) re-enactment of the plagues. Awakening in his bed, thanks to the help of a reluctant Kyle, he embraces the Jewish faith for saving him and all is right in the world.

Cartman is someone aware of the manipulative power of myth, having used it countless times in the past to get his own, often racist or anti-semitic way. Here, he utilises to his advantage the supermarket executives' desire to play into their self-image as a fun and safety-conscious company by presenting them with ridiculous 'proof' of a threat, which they choose to throw their resources at even though they know it's nonsense. ('What do you think, Peters? What are the chances that this Jewpacabra is real?' 'I’m estimating about .00000001 percent.') They buy into Cartman's story because they want to believe there's some truth in their oft-repeated slogan, even though a clever turnaround near the episode's end reveals the townspeople are less convinced by their credentials.

Unfortunately for Cartman, his delusions of grandeur and readiness to throw himself wholeheartedly into a scam (the way his real ploy, to be the only child on the egg hunt, was underplayed was an elegant touch, leaning on how irrelevant the truth becomes when a myth gathers power) have a habit of backfiring on him, forcing him to accept his own lies rather than the reality that he's not quite the mastermind he sees himself as, with his plans rarely going as intended. His dream shows how little cogent grasp he really has of religious scripture, but he'd rather convert to Judaism than accept his own fallibility. Of course, this revelation will be as short-lived as any of Cartman's many others: Kyle recognises it (he's not exactly impressed) as do we, as South Park viewers, know this kind of big character shift won't last. Otherwise Stan would still be an alcoholic, after all.

The easter egg hunt itself was an interesting sidenote, showing how much of the holiday's true meaning has been forgotten in favour of a twee, corporate gimmick to sell chocolate. What should be a celebration of faith and the beginning of a period of repentance was instead turned into a free-for-all where children beat each other up to lay their hands on as much brightly-coloured confectionery as possible, further demonstrating how little concern Sooper Foods really have for safety or fun: I hope South Park does a Hunger Games Easter egg hunt sometime.

How much of that was intentional is key to whether, to my mind at least, the episode could be seen as a success or not. 'Jewpacabra', on its own terms, wasn't particularly funny, with only a small number of laughs (having 'Maniac' from Flashdance be Kyle's ringtone was a spark of genius, though, brilliantly built up by the perfectly timed wait for Cartman's call to come through) and a story that jumped from idea to idea too haphazardly to be engaging. The idea of Cartman creating a ridiculous story and galvanising the local lunatics behind him, while Kyle plays the straight man, has also been done way too many times before, starting the episode on an overplayed note.

A hidden meaning behind the narrative would in no way solve those problems, but would at least give the episode a focus it otherwise lacked. I'd point to the newly converted Cartman's amusingly unaware spiel at the episode's end ('I guess we're just going to have to let stupid people believe what they're going to believe') as proof of something being there, but the problem is that it's difficult to be sure one way or another, as has been the case too often in a bumpy start to the season.




Unknown said...

I think this is a great article and, refreshingly, you obviously have an extensive understanding of the way that South Park works. On the other hand i am surprised that you even have the slightest doubt that the "hidden" messages within the episode were left intentionally by Trey and Matt.

Of course in many episodes the message they are intending to portray will be much more obvious, but I think that because there was so much going on in "Jewpaabra" that a certain level of subtlety had to be maintained in order to cater for the viewers of South Park who are not looking for a social or political commentary. I am certain that any message (political, religious social or otherwise) that can be extracted from an episode was fully intended by its creators. I enjoy the varying degrees of subtlety that they use as I feel I am getting more out of the show than those people who tune in simply to see what kind of offensive material the creators will hazard broadcasting each week.

I agree it was not a fantastic episode, but after seeing South Park develop over 16 seasons i do not doubt for a second that the creators intended Jewpacabra to be a multi-layered episode abundant in hidden (and not so hidden) meaning for the viewers that are capable and willing to extract it. And for those who aren't, I think Cartman dressed in a bunny costume, smeared with blood and chained up in the woods by the owner of a confused super market chain will be enough to satisfy the need for the level of absurdity that the audience have come to expect.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks for your comment! Pleased you enjoyed the review.

My hesitation in accepting whether the episode's themes/messages were intentional or not mainly stemmed from South Park usually being pretty upfront about what it is trying to say, even if doing so in a characteristically absurd manner. The opening episode of this season, 'Reverse Cowgirl', is a good example of that.

'Jewpacabra' required a lot more unpacking than usual and could be seen as nothing more than a silly episode about Cartman being anti-semitic and ending up, as you tidily put it, 'dressed in a bunny costume, smeared with blood and chained up in the woods by the owner of a confused super market chain.'

If this had been any other comedy, the recurring motifs would have been dismissed out of hand as a fluke. Since it's South Park, there's a good chance Trey and Matt were toying with deeper ideas, even if it was more difficult to be sure this time, especially since other recent episodes have been a bit fuzzy on what they've wanted to say.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first poster "Unknown" in that you hit on the hidden message despite the fact that you also possess doubt in it's meaning. There is no question that the creators paralleled the belief in urban legends and myths with the faith people have in various religions. They basically divide the audience into those who understand (like Kyle) and those who don't (like Cartman, although he claims he does at the end). In the end Cartman falls victim to his own scam when he tries to swap one ideal with another because he was passed over. Only Kyle knows that he was the one who saved Cartman and that his conversion to Judaism is really fallacious.

IMO they also point out the hidden motives behind the creations of most belief systems, which often seek to only benefit only a few. They suggest that people with religious faith believe blindly in their own ideals while claiming that other people with similar beliefs only slightly different stories are stupid or wrong. The morale of the story is to be like Kyle, and be skeptical of what everyone is pushing (although he too is religious).

Alex Flannagan said...

I didn't enjoy your article sorry. It was repetitive and you could've made your point in a short paragraph. I also read your butterballs episode review and feel similarly.