Saturday, April 25, 2009

South Park — Season 1

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.


  1. "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."

    I haven't watched much of The Simpsons past season 12, but the episodes that I have seen of the later seasons seem funny enough, if just that, which is basically the key thing I look for in a comedy series.

    Between abandoning story altogether and running out of fresh ideas, I can understand why one would lose respect for the Simpsons, but you seem like someone that really cares for comedies having plots. Don't get me wrong, I would PREFER comedies that have messages and are always relevant to what's going on, but I have a hard enough time finding something that I think is funny, let alone funny and having decent plots. I just don't want to get too picky.

    So why would you feel some distance, assuming you do, from something without an unnecessary and risky amount of attention to story(Remember Mash?), if it makes you laugh every 5 seconds?

  2. The thing about the Simpsons, though, is that it used to combine references, callbacks, gags, narrative and heart in a way that no show (and frankly no film) could approach. Now the gags are sometimes funny but the show still relies fairly heavily on plot without the jokes that work in sync with it. I love Arrested Development, which above all comedies is a show without narrative purpose, whose storylines existed chiefly to provide callback references for future episodes. It wasn't trying to teach us lessons, whereas The Simpsons often had some wisdom to impart and struggles to teach us lessons today (like MASH, which you referenced, I think it's gone on too long and now can't find the balance anymore).

  3. Well yeah, I don't know about anyone else, but if it was longer than 6 seasons, I couldn't write it. If you run out of high quality ideas and time to come up with them, write the dang series finale. That's the reality of it. But you know people, so many of them just want to keep a show going for as long as they can until it's phsyically immpossible to continue it. And finding balance? Oh god, I'm running for my life now.

    I'm certainly interested in Arrested Developement. It seems like it has an original concept. I heard they were gonna do four seasons but it got cancelled at three. Darn.

    Speaking of the Simpsons(Wait, what's the name of this review again?), have you watched the episode "Last Exit to Springfield"?