Thursday, 27 September 2012

Television - South Park 'Sarcastaball' review

South Park Eric Cartman Sarcastaball

'Sarcastaball' is a truly, deeply ridiculous story, and all the better for it. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have never had much need for plausibility to drive their plots forward, but this episode took the biscuit. After discovering the student football team had done away with kick-offs due to the risk of concussion, Randy's sarcastic complaints leads to the school implementing his suggestions that the players wear tin foil hats and bras instead of helmets and padding, and hug each other instead of tackle. This new version of the sport soon becomes a nationwide phenomenon, and Butters a champion due to his ability to summon up the 'creamy goodness' from inside him.

Make sense? Not for a moment. Funny? You'd better believe it.
Butters and Randy have quietly become South Parks' MVPs, with the latter a perfect representative of the townspeople's habit for irrational snap-judgments - a trait formerly exhibited by the folks of Springfield, back when they still had some passion - and the former the antithesis of everything the show is known for. In recent years, Matt and Trey have shown a knack for finding disarming sweetness in even the most ridiculous situations, such as Kenny becoming a hero to his little sister during last season's finale, and placing the naive and sincere Butters at the heart of an episode where everyone communicates in sarcastic quips pulled a similar trick.

The world of South Park is cynical and filthy-minded by nature, and Butters has risen to prominence as the character representing the opposite extreme. He understands very little about the world, but unwaveringly believes that the people inhabiting it will do right by it in the end. His open-heartedness makes him the only person in the town capable of finding sense in a 'sport' as aimless as sarcastaball, where the sole aim is to be as nice to your opponent as possible. The joke, naturally, is that where Butters' kindness is completely genuine, everyone else is only trying to gain an advantage by it. This leads to Cartman, who lacks empathy in any shape or form, to try and understand what it is that makes Butters so capable of doing what no-one else can. Unfortunately, due to his dad's ongoing refusal to be honest with his son about certain bodily functions, Butters interprets his reaction to a certain type of dream as his body 'overflowing' with goodness.

Okay, so having Butters', erm, discharge become the new energy drink for sarcastaball players is gross-out humour of the most base kind, and not exactly thematically relevant in any way. The sight of Cartman first sampling Butters' immense reserves was a fantastic 'will-they-go-there-oh-god-they-just-did' sight gag, and Matt and Trey obviously got immense pleasure from showing certain well-known sports stars downing the stuff to improve their performance. Even Lance Armstrong got in on the gig, even though kindness doesn't exactly go hand in hand with enhanced cycling ability, but he's Lance Armstrong so presumably he'll try anything. It wasn't subtle or witty, but cringeworthily funny nevertheless.

The episode revolved around a couple of themes, notably the damaging perception that honesty and kindness are traits to be looked down upon. The former was mainly used to get the episode going, and not developed in any particular depth. The opening scenes hinted that the story was heading for a debate about health and safety, although unusually coming down in favour of neutering popular sports to prevent long-term damage. The psychological effects of repeated concussion was used to comic effect early on, and Randy's disgust at the school trying to look after the children's wellbeing is presented as being more concerned with his love of violent sport than making sure the town's children were able to play in a reasonably safe environment. South Park hasn't taken a positive view in the past on people allowing their fears to change their way of life, but 'Sarcastaball' certainly seemed to be taking the side that health and safety wasn't necessarily a bad thing if it meant protecting children by slightly altering the rules of a sport at junior level.

On the other hand, the rest of the episode railed against people hiding the truth from children, so perhaps this was just a case of mixed messages. Butters' dad is shown preferring to tell his son all kinds of nonsense to conceal the truth about wet dreams, which naturally leads to Butters making his own assumptions and getting it badly, badly wrong. Though starting out with health and safety, the episode eventually showed its real concern to be the modern fear of sincerity, displaying in sarcastic attitudes designed to make people feel superior, even when it only causes damage to the way they interact and live. I'm not convinced sarcasm or dishonesty is really all that much of a social plague in the way the episode depicts - if anything, when it comes to sexual matters, it could be argued that there's too much openness - but struck a greater chord with the idea that the real problem was society's readiness to jump aboard any popular trend, no matter the consequences. When it's cool to be cynical, that's what people will be. When it's cool to be nice, they'll do that instead.

Having created the sport entirely out of sarcasm, Randy couldn't understand why anyone would genuinely derive enjoyment from participating in a game where the only object was to be nice to people. (An uncaring attitude captured in a hilariously dark sight gag where he crashes a sarcastaball game by running his car onto the field, bloodily knocking down one of the players in the process). Where the boys started out only being 'nice' as a form of competition, Butters' creamy, gooey honesty convinced them to try it for real, and by the end, they actually liked the opportunity to indulge in unashamed expressions of positivity.

Unfortunately, when it is discovered this newfound optimism has led to everyone guzzling a young child's ejaculate (with Randy bluntly stating what the episode had been dancing around, 'Commitment! Compassion! Comradery!' slogan and all), the town's cynicism returns in spades. As usual, no-one really learns their lesson in South Park, a trait going all the way back to the series' beginnings and its 'I've learnt something today' catchphrase. Butters' father still won't tell him what an erection is or why it happens - although 'friend compass' is pretty great, not that many religions will be happy with the idea that everyone's boners are pointing towards Jesus - and Butters' kindness once again ends up getting him punished. In the end, cynicism is born out of a certain amount of realism, and Trey and Matt are honest enough to admit that even while disappointed at society's willingness to accept it as inevitable.


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