Saturday, April 25, 2009

South Park — Season 2

Having never stuck with South Park for a full season, I finally decided to start from the beginning to get the full experience before Trey and Matt (or, more likely) stopped altruistically streaming their entire series online. After a bit of disappointment with the dated feel of the first season but still fueled by more than enough laughs to propel me straight to the next set of episodes. Happily, the second season, despite suffering from a much bigger inconsistency than the first, is a marked improvement and contains the first true classics of the series.

The last season ended on the cliffhanger of the identity of Cartman's father, but if making fans wait 4 weeks to learn the answer tested viewers before they really cemented as hardcore fans, airing an entire episode revolving around Terrence and Phillip, the Canadian fart joke equivalents of Itchy and Scratchy, as an elaborate April Fool's joke instead of the second part of the episode took balls the size of grapefruits. In retrospect, "Terrence and Phillip in Not Without My Anus" isn't very funny and its appeal lies solely in its proof that Trey and Matt were willing to alienate people from the get-go.

Happily, its follow-up, the real season opener, is a fine coda to the first season's finale, even if it spends way too much emphasizing the clichés it sends up. From there we get early classics like "Chickenlover," in which we learn about Officer Barbrady's illiteracy and "Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls," a gaudy pun played up for an entire episode but never too much. "Conjoined Fetus Lady" mercilessly attacks how political correctness often only highlights differences and places them on a pedestal rather than allowing people to treat those with disabilities like human beings.

But there are also some duds. "Summer Sucks" has some great digs into Mr. Garrison's sexual confusion, but its main plot involving the attempt to make the biggest fireworks snake fizzles. "City on the Edge of Forever" introduces us to a clip show (this soon?) and even though it changes most of the clips around, it still follows the trend of most clip shows and just ambles along.

Likewise, "Chickenpox" never really gets off the ground until its disgusting finale, and "Ike's Wee Wee" features a main plot that would have been better served as a side-story. "Cow Days" has nothing going for it until Cartman suffers head trauma and mistakes himself for a Vietnamese prostitute. Consistency is a real problem this season, not just between episodes but within them.

Two episodes, however, point towards the future greatness of the show. "Spookyfish," the requisite Halloween episode has little in the way of satire, but it's just a damn good story that's full of laughs. A parallel universe opens up in South Park and a bearded, kind Cartman emerges. His world is evil but, as Cartman's doppelganger, he's pure and passive. This leads to a great twist in which Stan and Kyle try to send their Cartman to the parallel universe so they can keep the nice one.

But the season's centerpiece is undoubtedly "Gnomes," the first true masterpiece of the show. This season (and even the last one) boast a few fan favorites, but this episode is just perfect. Now, it's not as funny as it could be, but "Gnomes" is a blistering satire on the media's anti-corporation slant and the general assumption that every single big business got to the top by drinking the blood of small business owners. When coffee purveyors Harbucks try to open a franchise in South Park, local café owner Mr. Tweek manipulates the boys into railing against big business to ensure he can still hold the monopoly in the town. It paints Mr. Tweek as a far greedier and exploitative person than the Harbucks' operators, and even dares to suggest that maybe some businesses got big because they offered a superior product.

So, while the season oscillates between brilliance and mediocrity, its high number of classic moments (Cartman as a cop, Cartman the Vietnamese prostitute, Chef Aid) and the handful of classic episodes elevate above its more consistent predecessor. It's still got aways to go, but slowly the animation and the writing is coming together.

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