Saturday, May 2, 2009

South Park — Season 5

If South Park's fourth season took the show from a promising, occasionally brilliant series into a consistently rewarding product, the fifth thrust it into the realms of true greatness. Even the show's superb fourth season fit in more with the lighter, scatological nature of the early days, but here the show at last moved into the darker territory that would define its golden run. Oh sure, people look upon "Trapper Keeper" and "Chinpokomon" as classics -- and for good reason -- but had South Park not taken this final step in its evolution, it'd be little more than a cult memory today.

From the very first episode you know that you're in for something special. At the time, late night dramas such as N.Y.P.D. Blue were allowed to say shit uncensored for the first time. They cited artistic reasons, such as the added realism of letting cops and criminals use the words they actually use. They're right, but Parker and Stone found it interesting that they take a massive drubbing weekly for using those words (even though they're bleeped out), while dramas can do it and be called "mature." So they came up with "It Hits the Fan," an episode that contains over 160 uncensored uses of the word shit. It attacks the gimmickry of the whole thing, more than implying that those crime dramas exploited their "artistic bravery." Then, in true absurd fashion, it becomes a rather convincing argument for standards and practices on television, arguing that, if given free reign over language, T.V. could rob all taboos of their shock and therefore fun.

It acts as a primer for the season, one so full of boundary-pushing that I'm surprised I wasn't desensitized to it by the end. "Cripple Fight" introduces Timmy's foil Jimmy, whom everyone takes a liking to, leading a jealous Timmy to instigate the titular fight, a near shot-by-shot remake of the hilarious duel in John Carpenter's They Live. "Proper Condom Use," in the true independent nature of Parker and Stone, mocks both the parents who get up in arms over sex education and its utter inadequacy in the schools. And just try to get the image of Mr. Mackey and Ms. Choksondik getting it on.

Elsewhere, the writers hammer out their ability to spoof pop culture and bigger issues on a dime, with a Looney Tunes inspired post-9/11 show that blasts the terrorists behind the attack, to a show that deliberately creates the lamest, most two-dimensional (literally!) character in the world to mock all the characters made for merchandising reasons. Towelie shows up every 8 seconds, reminding our pals "Don't forget to bring a towel!" Sensing his own uselessness, he spends his down time getting high and trying to forget his menial task.

Airline bailouts and Segways are mocked in equal measure when Mr. Garrison invents a strongly homoerotic gyroscope to compete with the airline industry, which took bailout money, only to fire employees and pay out to the executives, leading to inefficient travel and more resentment of air travel (hmm, that sounds vaguely familiar...). When "The Entity" becomes a mass hit, airline companies, rather than improve their business, hire lobbyists to persuade the government to shut Garrison down.

Every single episode is a classic, but the centerpiece of the season, if not the series, is the twisted, utterly genius "Scott Tenerman Must Die." When Cartman buys pubic hair from a local teen thinking that simply owning pubes means he's hit puberty, his friends mock him and Cartman goes to get his money back. When the teen refuses, the two enter into a battle of wits to see who can humiliate the other into giving up. It is perhaps fitting that a show most people cite for its political and social satire -- I, for example, often find myself placing the biting episodes in my top 25 rather than should reach its apex with a completely meaningless episode, but this drew a line in the sand for the series. But when Cartman orchestrates a demented chili cook-off so well-planned Heath Ledger's Joker would give him props, the show forever alters from an occasionally biting series into a an anarchic firebrand with a borderline nihilist at its core. Cartman was always an ass, but here he becomes a true sociopath.

Most of South Park's seasons are great, but their on-the-fly parody often results in inconsistent episodes, even when either the main satire or the sideplot connects. This season, however, is the perfect synthesis of everything that makes South Park great without an ounce of its weaknesses. Even the lightweight "Cartmanland" connects among the darker stuff. They also tackle emotion (well, as emotional as the show could get, anyway) with the surprisingly touching "Kenny Dies," which turns the big running joke of the early days into something somber and meaningful as Stan never gets to say goodbye to his friend. Then the episode ends with his joyous epiphany that, hey, he's not the worst friend in the world: Cartman is. That's South Park for you: even when they're serious, they pull the rug from underneath you.

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