Saturday, April 25, 2009
As The Simpsons continues to descend into mediocrity stemming from outliving any fresh plots, and with Family Guy just plain sucking, South Park must hold aloft the flag of quality animated T.V. Over the course of the decade, the show has proven to be the most relevant piece of social commentary on the air, skewering topics ranging from tabloid-fodder to Elian Gonzalez to the War in Iraq. But what about the beginning, back when South Park was a crudely-animated, crass comedy that single-handedly launched Comedy Central into a national station?
In retrospect, South Park's first season does not seem to warrant the media storm that it received, nor does it really explain why it became such a commercial sensation in the late 90s. That's not to say that it isn't funny -- far from it -- but its style is such a far cry from the pitch-black satire of its later seasons that at times its almost unrecognizable. Oh sure, all the main characters were there from the start, and a few lesser characters came to the forefront over the years, but their personalities haven't been fully defined yet.
Case in point: Cartman, the show's defining character and one of the darkest creations ever allowed on television, comes off more as an incorrigible scamp. If anything, he's like Bart Simpson with Homer's weight. The Simpsons is a clear influence on the show -- could any animated program made since possibly not be indebted to it? -- but in this season Trey Parker and Matt Stone flirt with ripping Matt Groening off at various intervals: just watch "Weight Gain 4000" and try not to think about the masterpiece that is "King Size Homer." It kind of makes their Family Guy parody way on down the road a bit ironic, as they accuse Seth McFarlane of just ripping off The Simpsons and mixing it with unfunny random humor. Then again, considering how quickly Parker and Stone found their voice and carved out a unique program, I can't really bring myself to hold this over their heads any.
Despite the lighter tone and the general lack of a biting satirical element (with a few notable exceptions), most of the 13 episodes have something to recommend them, and a few are quite excellent. "Volcano," an underrated gem, viciously attacks the media's exploitations of emotions as well as taking an early swipe at hunting for sport. "Damien" introduces Jesus and Satan and even pits them together in a hilariously anti-climactic, pay-per-view boxing match. And for pure surreality, nothing beats the uproarious "Mecha-Streisand." Of course, the highlight of the season is the tongue-in-cheek cliffhanger in which Cartman attempts to learn the identity of his father. It sends up just about every season finale cliché, but the best shots were saved for the next season.
Other episodes, unfortunately, just don't stack up. Apart from the aforementioned "Weight Gain 4000," several episodes fail to get more than a few chuckles. "An Elephant Makes Love to a Pig" is nothing but shock humor, but it's far from shocking by the show's standards so it never really goes anywhere. The pilot, in which aliens anally probe Cartman, earns points for showing how casually Parker and Stone would push the boundaries of taste even from the start, but you can tell instantly that this is a first episode. Even good episodes have elements that take away from it: "Starvin' Marvin" sends up Sally Struthers and the hypocritical and self-satisfying nature of all those ads to help starving children, but the second plot involving a turkey uprising falls flat.
The animation on South Park has never really approached beauty, but here it is borderline awful. The animation is so crude that it actually distracts at times, and it's hard to care about the town and its inhabitants because of it. Stan and Kyle have too much of a heroic streak; they're always the ultimate voice of logic and peace in the show, but they're far from saints in later seasons. South Park's relative lack of continuity makes this season more of a "for fans only" season; those wishing to introduce newcomers would do well to start them a bit further down the road. Nevertheless, there's enough moments worth your time and enough near-classics to make the inaugural season a fun, if dated, look into the start of a classic.
Labels: South Park