Vision Malevolent #6: South Park Season 14.5: What Trey Parker’s Been Watching on TV Lately

I mean, yes, South Park has always been about what Trey Parker’s been watching on TV, or what he saw on the news, but this time it seems like that’s all Trey has to say about it:  “I’ve been watching TV.”

 

Hallo, I’m J. Michael and welcome back to Vision Malevolent. VM enjoyed a obstreperous Thanksgiving holiday which involved a glorious Patriots victory and a even more glorious night listening to nothing but Vince Guaraldi Trio while I waited for my stomach to stop distending.  This week I am reviewing the second half of Season 14 of South Park, which recently concluded.

 

I’ll go to my grave firmly asserting that Season 6 of South Park is not merely the best season of the show, but one of the best seasons of American television ever produced. It served as the standard by which all subsequent seasons have followed: a few political episodes, sprinkled with some pop culture television satire, and at least one episode a run of episodes that focuses on the boys simply being 4th graders. It really was the pinnacle of Trey’s use of outlandish, controversial narrative to make astute and subtle social commentary.

 

 

It was, however, the last season to employ a Summer run. South Park’s scheduling to that point seems completely arbitrary. Seasons ran the course of a calendar year, but different seasons began at different times, and sometimes and entire “run” of episodes ran a measly three shows. In season six, this somewhat stabilized: a spring run, then a mini-run in Summer, and a final run in late fall, culminating with a Christmas episode. It’s easy to see why they would eschew such an arduous schedule since then, switching to a season comprised of two half-season runs in spring and fall, but it also makes me wonder if they didn’t squander their peak years in the process.

 

Because up until season 12, South Park was almost untouchable. There were some truly dreadful episodes occasionally, but even the worst episodes of that era were somewhat redeemable, at the very least funny. And none of the half-season runs could be objectively considered failures. That was always something you could depend upon from South Park; even if a individual episode was bad, you could be assured that the season itself would be fantastic. Basically, they never lost two games in a row.

 

Season 12, however, was more uneven than anything we’d seen from the show, with the second half almost unsalvageable dull and vapid  until the final three episodes (“About Last Night”, “Elementary School Musical”, and “The Ungroundable”) basically saved the season.

 

Season 13, however, was true offal. The intricacies of the show seemed disturbingly vacant. After a admirable start (“The Ring” and “The Coon”), the season devolved horrifically. Episodes like “Fatbeard” and “Margaritaville’ made valiant but uninspired attempts to comment upon major political stories, while episodes like “Whale Wars” and “Dances with Smurfs’ seemed almost devoid of substantive humor altogether. The shows seemed forced, and worse, formulaic. It made me wonder whether the show might be stagnating .

 

And so Season 14’s first half-season was a true delight, seemingly confirming the lackluster Season 13 as a deviation. Episodes such as “You Have 0 Friends” displayed Trey’s trademark ability to find adroit, fundamentally ingenious ways to comment upon social phenomenon with vigor, and, without fail, left-field filmic references to guide the show‘s climactic action. Most  importantly, the “200”/”201″ saga gave the show much needed resurgence in public visibility. South Park went two full seasons without some sort of endemic controversy. The last time the show had that much buzz was probably Adventureland.

 

The thinly veiled death threats leveled at them was therefore crucially timed. But more vitally, those episodes were a return to the show’s most potent and fecund subject: censorship. It’s these sort of broad themes that Trey works with much better than the more pointed exposition he’s fallen into the last few years. Somehow, the more specific the subject of Trey’s ire the more inconsequential and erratic the result.

 

The kind of exposition was full display in a noticeable portion of the second half of Season 14.

 

The redeeming aspects of this half-season


The “Coon Trilogy”, from what I’ve inspected in the critical coterie and the fandom, is a pretty divisive one. Yes, it is essentially a genre exercise, but I found it to be incisive, an amusing twist on the BP spill, and what amounted to a legitimately gripping plot. One of the more overlooked strengths Trey’s shown as a writer and a show runner is the way he constructs these multi-part episodes. Some of the most thrilling moments in South Park have been the final moments of Part 1 or Part 2 shows (and I’m specifically thinking of “Cartoon Wars, Part I”).

 

It doesn’t technically count as the season’s “boys being boys” episode, but it does have a strong basis in the boys acting less like Trey’s incongruously young mouthpieces and just 4th Graders, playing superhero. The Coon Saga showed a deliberate focus and, I noticed, a very different kind of humor than South Park is noted for portraying. The entire basis of Captain Hindsight (and his scenes, no less), Mintberry Crunch, Cthulu’s sheepish behavior… it was all very silly and ephemeral, the humor derived almost entirely from the premise. Not the sort of thing we’ve seen from Trey, not with that kind of earnestly impish silliness.

 

It also was a nice touch to have Kenny’s rebirth explanation tie back into what was basically a throwaway joke dozens of episodes ago. Kenny’s mythology made the trilogy meaningful and, from a fan’s perspective, essential. It’s also kind of amusing how Trey was Glee before Glee was Glee: continuity and credulity only matter when he wants it to, and when he does, it really does matter. In these episodes, the contrasts of belief and disbelief intermingle: they are just dumb kids playing pretend in the basement, but then it turns out two of them really are superhuman. And none of it really matters, until the end when it explains one of the great mysteries of the show. Kenny’s death is just something that happens so don‘t bother over thinking it, but it also is a process that has been explained in pieces that tie together over the course of numerous seasons. That sort of thing.

 

The rest of the season is, as the title indicates, almost wholly conceived around what Trey was watching on TV this Summer. With “Insheeption” it works, mainly because Trey dexterously framed the hoarding-themed reality shows he’s apparently been watching with a loose satire of Inception, thus allowing neither the chance to overpower the plot.

 

Of course, Trey can’t resist having a character literally act as his mouthpiece, and so we get a very explicit line about Trey’s discontent of the relentless praise lathed upon Inception this Summer. But it also had a number of hilarious beats, like the pizza delivery guy’s entrance or the Matt Hasselbeck runner. And it incorporated Mr, Mackey, one of the few times in recent memory the school’s abundant characters were fruitfully exploited. Honestly, where was Garrison this run?  This season?

 

Now, the bad


Trey’s always had a habit of plotting a whole show around whatever TV show is on his plate at the time, and sometimes with little if any substantive or provocative message about it. That was ok, years ago. But it’s becoming habitual. It really hit a low with this run.

 

“It’s a Jersey Thing” was probably the least offensive of the three, merely because it made a gallant attempt to say something about a show and a subbaculture that has already been exhaustively scrutinized. And while it did contain one most unwelcome character tweaks I can recall in all 14 seasons of South Park, it was at least an original and amusing narrative he constructed about the New Jersey oblivious takeover of America. It didn’t really go anywhere, and it didn’t essentially say much at all (especially the climax, which was just totally ridiculous), but at worst it was an average episode.

 

Really though, how in the hell does Trey put Kyle’s mom in New Jersey, when she has the textbook New York City Jew accent?! Kyle being Jersey was so unfathomably out of character and disorienting, a cheap ploy that never had a chance. The  show itself didn’t either, actually.

 

But the really travesty was the other two episodes in this half season, which I rank amongst the worst the show has ever produced. Totally devoid of any charm, they both exhibit two of my least favorite developments of the last three to four seasons, And both are based upon certain characterizations, characterizations that pop up every once in a while, always to base an entire episode around: The obnoxious Cartman/Butters dynamic, and the sheer, vacuous stupidity of Randy Marsh.

 

Cartman and Butters are an excellent, dichotomous pair… when coupled either in a random scene in a show, or even as much as the b-plot to an episode. But when they are the a-story, it is dreadful. Their interplay becomes less amusing and exponentially more unbearable, as the charms of both get amplified beyond their limits.

 

And worse, this was combined with the always-unseemly trend of Cartman pulling the plot along by playing offensively broad characterizations, always of the people in the subculture he’s infiltrating. The offensive part isn’t in the distastefulness of it, it’s in Trey’s acting and writing: Cartman shouting incoherently, acting like a goddamn idiot, and nothing more. When he played retarded, or when he played Tourette’s, he was saved by episodes with stronger plots, more in Cartman’s motivation. But in “Poor and Stupid”, the plot basically was Cartman acting like a goddamn incomprehensible moron. But at least we learned that Trey is aware of Nascar culture. That’s about all I took from that episode.

 

Another case in point:

 

Alright Trey, so you're watching PTI. So, without satirizing it, does this count as a goddamn homage to it then?

 

But it’s “Crème Fraiche” that really was the nadir of the season and, tragically, also the season finale. Trey has been watching Food Network, and he’s also seen the commercials for the disturbingly salacious Shake Weight. The hackneyed result: people that watch Food Network orgasm over cuisine, and the Shake Weight, get this, alludes to sex. Sex with hands. That’s the show.

 

It makes me sad because at one time, Randy Marsh was the best character on the show. Before he became incorrigible, he was Stan’s flawed, deadpan  geologist dad. But for the last five seasons, he’s been a impenetrably stupid character, moronic beyond the point of humor. It’s simply annoying. It was the difference between his grounded demeanor as an adult and the cluelessness of his actions as a dad that made him so great. Now he’s worthless. His loudness suffocates every show that’s centered around him.

 

And so, this half-season contains pinnacles and bedrocks. It certainly doesn’t make me despondent that Season 15 might be the last. In many ways, it suggests to me that perhaps that would be for the best.

 

I do have to say one thing about the nature of the show’s quality, however. And, really, about the nature of creative zeniths.

 

Basically, South Park is greater than The Simpsons, because South Park’s peak period lasted longer than The Simpsons. Even with it’s faults, South Park is still relevant, able to produce, at worst, an adequate season into the 14th year.  The Simpsons started to falter around the 10th season, and has never fully recovered. Much akin to Trey’s reliance on loud, idiotic performances and cursory references to shows he’s watching, The Simpsons started to really go when guest stars became a weekly occurrence. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but that’s when it started.

 

Of course, in those ten seasons The Simpsons produced more shows than South Park will ever produce. So by volume, The Simpsons holds a resounding edge. But I feel that this is crucial in my belief that creative genius is not about the amount of things produced, but the longevity of production. Basically, that the lifespan of a creative peak depends more on the passing of time than by how much material is produced. So South Park gets the edge because they were great for a longer period, regardless of how many episodes were produced. The fact that South Park is still worth watching, is still able to produce work of astounding substance, even if it is 4 out of 7 times, is remarkable.

 

And I return to my point that South Park might have wasted their creative peak a bit. After Season 6, the amount of episodes per season dropped from 17 to 14. It doesn’t seem like much, but we’re now 8 seasons into this. 24 episodes, and nearly two full seasons of episodes lost to this shift. And 12 episodes lost before the hiccup of Seasons 12 and 13. That would be fine, if it was to prolong the show, but after some of these episodes in Season 14.5, I’m not sure it was worth it.

 

But, even saying that, when South Park is great it is transcendent, and so it’s always worth it. And if Season 15 is the last season, South Park will still go down as the greatest non-Avatar show of the last 15 years. I’m J. Michael.

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One Response to Vision Malevolent #6: South Park Season 14.5: What Trey Parker’s Been Watching on TV Lately

  1. mattersundermind says:

    I always wonder why others don’t find it as excruciating as I did to maintain, in every sense of the word, a satirical character. Or maybe that hey do, but carry on anyways. I couldn’t; it made me want to drive stakes through my fucking skull.

    Kudos.

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