Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ten Great South Park Episodes


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"South Park"

I realized I didn't have anything about the "South Park" television series on here, which was a major omission, so here we go!

There isn't too much about television animation such as Trey Parker's and Matt Stone's "South Park" on here because, frankly, the quality of animation on tv isn't nearly as high as that of feature film and films are easier to review. Now, I can imagine the howls of protest at that, but it's true. That is not to say that tv animation is valueless or anything like that. However, if you try to stack a 30-minute show's animation against "Frozen" and you're going to come up short every time. "South Park" follows in the tradition of shows like "Ren & Stimpy" which push the limits, and that is one of its main attractions.

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Smug alert!

That is not to say that tv animation is an inferior product, just that the quality of that animation is from an earlier technical era. The animation you see on the small screen certainly can be as brilliant as anything you see in the theater if you are measuring impact and cleverness. It also can address topics that you'll never see in a full-length animated feature film because the extended length of a tv show over the course of an entire season allows all sorts of meanderings not permitted to a highly focused feature film. You could be watching shadows on the wall and be engrossed if the story is good, so having cutting edge animation isn't always determinative about quality.

"South Park," of course, had its moment in theaters with "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut." That film did all right and was entertaining, but it had trouble making the transition to the big screen for a few very good reasons. First, it retained the topicality that is a trademark of television programs but anathema to feature films. Some of the biggest comic set-ups involved people like Saddam Hussein, and, to be frank, he really wasn't that funny then and he's a lot less funny or interesting now. The Baldwin brothers? Minor leagues, baby.

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Second, the primitive animation of "South Park" that is perfectly adequate on television is simply inadequate and non-competitive in a theater. It just doesn't look right in the age of Pixar and DreamWorks products. Nobody expects cutting edge animation for free in your living room, but they sure do after paying their $12 and buying some popcorn and juju beans.

Third, there simply isn't that much that is special and unique about a particular episode of a tv show that is expanded for the theater. Just as most folks wouldn't go way out of their way to find episode 8 from season 10 (whatever it was), there isn't much unique about just another rendition of the same South Park characters you see all the time on tv that is worth spending $12 on. Not enough, anyway, to say that the movie's story is anything special, and many fans of the tv show delight in the backwards idea that liking the film version is disloyal to the tv show. And heaven forbid that the movie introduce inconsistencies into the canon!

Look, devoted fans are like that.

All that said, some tv animation overcomes its inherent limitations and is top-notch. Even someone who is more into the more expensive feature film productions can enjoy some television animation just as much. While "South Park" is generally accepted to be running out steam after 16 seasons or however long it's been on, it packed a punch during its middle seasons. Almost all of these are from seasons 5-12, showing that the series was at its peak then.

Herewith, we present Ten "South Park" Episodes Worth Watching.

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"Come out, Tom!"

1. "Trapped in the Closet"

Season 9 Episode 12 

This may well be the most famous episode for non-fans, and for good reason. In it, Stone and Parker take on the easiest target in Hollywood, namely, Scientology.

Stan is mistaken for the reincarnation of Scientology’s founder, L. R Hubbard. After many meanderings - including Tom Cruise hiding in a closet - the episode ends with Stan concluding that ”Scientology is just a big fat global scam.”

It's not Scientology that makes this a classic, though the ending, where a Scientology leader explains its theories about aliens and such to Stan as the words "THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS REALLY BELIEVE" are shown at the bottom of the screen, is riotous. No, the episode reaches for the gold when it seriously lampoons Tom Cruise, Parker voicing him as a whiny brat who won't come out of the bedroom closet - with obvious unspoken implications aside from religion.

The show is infamous for taking on as many targets as it can, and Scientology gets its lumps here. However, the episode is extremely pointed and personal satire, and Isaac Hayes, who voiced Chef, decided it had gone too far. He abruptly resigned because he is a Scientology member and didn't like his religion being made fun of. Parker and Stone were nonplussed, saying in a statement, "”In 10 years and over 150 episodes of South Park, Isaac never had a problem with the show making fun of Christians, Muslims, Mormons and Jews. He got a sudden case of religious sensitivity when it was his religion featured on the show.”

The episode is hardly profound, and the phrase "shooting fish in a barrel" springs to mind, but it illustrates one area in which tv animation can trump film animation: topicality and the ephemeral nature of celebrity. Nobody would waste an entire film on such a flimsy plot-line as an attack on Cruise and Scientology, but a 30-minute tv episode? For sure.

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"Hey, have you guys ever seen this trick?"

2. "Asspen"

Season 6 Episode 2

Tad Mikowsky is a bully and takes on Stan. That's all there is to episode, but how it is done is what sets this episode apart. Along the way, every sports film from the '80s is satirized, and along the way we get the "Montage Song" from "Team America."

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"Well, I'm just a typical little girl."

3. Marjorine

Season 9 Episode 9 

Butters fakes his own death and then pretends to be a girl named Marjorine. His hope is to weasel his way into the girls' slumber party and snatch a paper fortune teller. Parker has fun exaggerating horror film conventions and explores childhood innocence. It's a fun episode that focuses on Butter, the innocent guy in the "South Park" universe who always says wacky things.

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"I gotta dance!"

4. You Got F’d in the A

Season 8 Episode 4 

It's the Goth Kids to the rescue in this episode, when they reveal that the only proper way to dance is to shuffle with your arms at your side with your eyes fixed to the floor, occasionally taking a drag on your cigaret. The tallest Goth kid busts a move or two, and we are shown just how silly all those "dance-off" films are. If you hate the modern dance hype on tv, this one's for you.

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"If this is what's cool now, I'm done." 

5. Elementary School Musical

Season 12 Episode 12 

This episode turns the obvious tropes of coming-of-age films on its head. Mr Güermo, unlike every other father in those types of films, actively wants his boy to take up dancing rather play basketball as is he preference. The dance-obsessed father is a riot, and while "High School Musical" may not even be worth a half hour of satire, it's still cathartic to stab that brief insane fad with your steely knife when you have the chance.

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"Remember, kids, if you smoke you could grow up to be a failure."

6. Butt Out

Season 7 Episode 13

Everybody had to sit through some puerile speech at some point in their lives from some motivational speaker. It's all about blaming others for things, and it works with extreme cleverness. After some over-the-top speakers decry the horrors of smoking, naturally the boys are caught smoking out behind the school. Trapped, they try to pin it on cigaret advertising in order to not get in trouble. Parker and Stone also throw a few shots at Rob Reiner of all people, who is portrayed as anti-smoking zealot who has a few health risks of his own. Some very adult issues about freedom and the right of others to impose on what you do are touched upon, zooming this episode way above where you expect it to go.

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What awaits each person in heaven is eternal bliss, divine rest, and $10,000 in cash."

7. The Death of Eric Cartman

Season 9 Episode 6

For pure fun, nothing in "South Park" tops "The Death of Eric Cartman." Cartman, of course, is evil and conniving, that kid you knew who had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but you still hung out with him anyway. There's even a musical interlude in the middle of the episode that underscores in a cynical way just how meaningless Cartman's attempts to "do the right thing" are. It's all about what a bad guy thinks being good means, and goes off in all sorts of wacky directions.

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"Jesus, Jesus, why don't we just shut off the lights."

8. Christian Rock Hard

Season 5 Episode 4

Cartman takes on Christian Rock, and gets his comeuppance. That about sums up this episode, and it has a nice twist that shows there are two sides to his issue. While Christian Rock is easy to satirize, Parker and Stone are careful to show that while there are inherent ridiculous aspects to the whole genre, it also isn't polite to dump on what other people like, either. Thus, Token takes a heap of abuse from Cartman, but then ultimately shows him what's what and serves up some righteous justice. A great and satisfying episode that shows that being cool and cynical can go just a little too far when not leavened with a little understanding and true tolerance.

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"Love is like taking a dump, Butters."

9. Cartman Finds Love

Season 16 Episode 7 

Cartman is a busy-body who gets into other people's lives. Here, he takes it to the next level and creates Cupid Me, which goes around making sure that people only get together with others from their own race. The whole notion is stood on its head with the conclusion that, despite all the liberal push to be encouraging for people of different races to be able to be together, sometimes people don't want to live an agenda and actually do want to be with others like themselves. It's a great insight into the Cartman character and a deeper look at what allowing people to do what they want really means.

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"Oh, the tears of unfathomable sadness!"

10. Scott Tenorman Must Die

Season 5 Episode 4 

Cartman is a hate-filled malevolent creature who balances hideous un-PC attitudes while hiding behind the blanket defense of childish innocence. This episode brings us Scott Tenorman, a ninth grade bully who cons Cartman out of his lunch money. This ignites Cartman into a raging ball of fury that must scale the heights of heroic retribution - only it doesn't quite work out the way it does in the movies. Operatic retribution just doesn't work when it comes to Cartman. In fact, he does become a sort of dark hero who must battle the even evil-er Scott Tenorman with the fate of the Galaxy, or at least his ninth grade pride, at stake.

SPECIAL BONUS EPISODE

I have given this episode a special category because it exists outside of ordinary lists. This episode is either great or revolting, and I think there are a lot of people on both side of that equation. So, I leave it up to you whether it belonged on the list of great episodes. If so, it also might belong on a list of truly awful episodes.

Oh, here's a hint: if you are easily offended, turn back now.

Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo

Season 1 Episode 9 

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This episode aired on December 17, 1997, right in time for Christmas. It's the only season 1 episode with a shot at making our "Great" list. Let's just allow Trey Parker himself (in 1998) discuss what makes this episode - "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo" - about talking poo so special, no need to embellish this story:

“When we were getting courted by all the networks, for people wanted the show, I remember I sat down with (Comedy Central executives) Eileen Katz and Debbie Liebling at our first meeting like two years ago, at dinner. I said, ‘You know, one thing I have to know before we really go any further. How do you feel about talking poo?’ And Eileen, I remember, just was like ‘I love it’. We had the idea for ‘The Mr. Hankey Show’ even before South Park. It’s what we originally pitched to Brian Graden (who became the president of MTV) and he was like, ‘Sounds great. Let’s NOT do that.’

“John Kricfalusi, the guy who created Ren & Stimpy, after the Christmas show had aired was making some big noise about the fact that Mr. Hankey was rip-off of some character he created on his website (Nutty, the Friendly Dump). It really pissed me off just because I actually wrote him specifically saying ‘Mr. Hankey has actually appeared on the opening sequence of South Park since it aired in August and even before that when we made the pilot a year before that’. Like I said, we pitched that to Brian years ago and before that Mr. Hankey was something I did in college.

“And so, you know, Brian Graden was the first one to come out and say ‘I was pitched Mr. Hankey four or five years ago’. (Kricfalusi) wrote a letter back saying ‘oh, okay, I see how it could just be a coincidence but you should admit to the press you are a big Ren & Stimpy fan’. I’m not a Ren & Stimpy fan. I have nothing against it. I saw an episode or two but that’s about that.”


2014

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