Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Last week, Comedy Central re-aired a South Park episode that I had missed the first time around. Something I didn't miss, however, was the network's promotion of an upcoming rebroadcast of the series' infamous Cartoon Wars two-parter.

Hmmm. Only a few weeks ago, when Cartoon Wars (and, specifically, the second of the two parts) aired, we read in various accounts how the network took a hard line against the show and refused to air images of the prophet Muhammad (Islam specifically forbids the publishing of any likeness of Muhammad). Apparently, however, the network didn't have nearly as big a problem with reminding everyone to watch a show that was, even if for a second, partially deleted.

My problem, lately, isn't with Comedy Central itself, but with South Park. The show won a bit of goodwill against the corporate suits when the network didn't air an episode that dealt, rather sarcastically, with Scientology. Conspiracy theorists linked the yanking to the demands of noted Scientologist Tom Cruise, who happened to be starting up promotion of Mission: Impossible 3. They speculated that Cruise, a key figure in the South Park episode, would refuse to publicize the movie unless the episode never again saw the light of day.

None of that would matter were Comedy Central and the M:I3 studio not under the same umbrella. The network appeared to bow to the pressures of corporate parent Viacom.

But then came the Cartoon Wars. The show railed Fox cartoon Family Guy for its inane writing and jokes that were completely unrelated to the plot as a whole.

Perhaps it was a case of mistaken identity. You know, that whole thing about pointing a finger but having four pointing right back at you.

The part that was deleted had no consequence to the plotline; it occurred during a Family Guy episode and had no bearing on the fake Family Guy or the real South Park episodes. Sure, the idea of it and the reaction to it were central to the plot; but the same effect could have been achieved without showing the Family Guy portion. (Think about the famous SP episode where they said "shit" many times over. The town was abuzz about the popular cops show saying "shit", but we never actually saw that happen; the episode was about the build-up and aftermath of "shit" being said on prime-time television.)

The whole Muhammad appearance - or lack of it - reeks of a publicity stunt. If Muslims feel that strongly about depictions of Muhammad, why can't that be respected? Why did South Park and its creators simply have to include Muhammad? Just to push the envelope a little further or shock a few more people?

Not too long ago, South Park did satire as well as The Simpsons. Without fail, one of the kids would end the show by saying, "You know, I learned something today..." They would spew some cheesy Knowing-Is-Half-The-Battle lines, and it all made sense. Everything that happened, the jokes and subplots, were all wrapped succinctly by the ending line. You'd watch a second time and appreciate everything a bit more, knowing what the overriding theme was. In a sense, watching it for the first time was a surprise.

But the satire has gone the way of sarcasm, and the show has gotten, well, cartoonish. Think about the futurist episode, where time travelers from eons in the future came back to take jobs to save for their families. Within five minutes of the show's beginning, the overarching theme was clear. They might have included the standard ending, but no one needed it.

It held true for the episode I most recently watched, the one about Al Gore. The theme seemed to be that Gore is an attention-seeker who vastly overestimates his own personal importance. Gee, I needed an episode of South Park to tell me that?

There are funny moments, to be sure, and each episode at least has a few. But the series has lost its edge. It's no longer about smart comedy, it seems to be about skewering another victim. The old South Park comedy deftly sliced; the current South Park comedy bludgeons with a cliched sledgehammer.

As The Simpsons scurry towards irrelevance, so too does South Park. It's the natural evolution of things, I suppose, but that doesn't make watching it any less sad.

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