South Park has two main types of critic. Much of the misguided public clamour which followed the first few episodes twelve years ago focused on the appropriateness of the show for children, as South Park was singled out by the first type of critic – angry PTA groups and prominent conservative figureheads – as symbolic of the decay of modern values and the dumbing down of kids’ culture. This despite the show’s post 10pm screening time, multiple content warnings and adult subject matter.
The show’s other main critic is the casual viewer, who enjoyed many of the early episodes, drawn in by the wave of media controversy and primetime coverage, but whose attention and laughter dissipated along with the sensationalism. These people will tell you South Park is just not funny anymore, although in almost all cases they haven’t seen an episode since the turn of the millennium.
Every so often an episode will touch a raw nerve, reigniting the debate over whether Matt (Stone) and Trey (Parker) have gone too far this time and uniting both types of critic. The latest such episode is season twelve’s “China Problem“, for its graphic scenes depicting George Lucas and Steven Spielberg raping Indiana Jones (as well as a Storm Trooper). The comments section of the above article showcases an even spread of opinion from both types of detractor (as well as the odd dissenting fan admittedly). I was disappointed by the absence of a riposte, so here’s mine.
For starters, let’s not pretend that we haven’t been here before – South Park has been taking aim at all and sundry since day one. “You can’t worry about one group, you just have to offend everyone equally”, says Trey, “and I think we do that pretty well”. The duo tear both Mormonism and Scientology to shreds at various points for example, not to mention Christianity and Judaism. But why is South Park mocking Scientologists any different from Friends or Frasier taking pot shots at the English or the French?
Returning to the previous example, the taboo in question is not a group of people but a crime, albeit a deeply distressing one – in this case rape, which in trivializing you risk offending and alienating victims’, not to mention the public’s sensibilities. However some of South Park’s sharpest satire stems from its willingness to take traditionally tricky and controversial subject matter and turn it on its head. The NAMBLA paedophilia episode from season four springs to mind, as does Randy’s Wheel of Fortune racist gaffe, Christopher Reeve devouring fetuses and the Native Americans holding the town to ransom (Cartman’s solution to which is “We can get Kyle infected with AIDS! And then start a charity organization that we steal money from!”).
The subtext to the Indiana Jones rape scene is pretty obvious as it follows the release of the disappointing fourth film in the Indy franchise. The graphic nature of the scenes embodies the deep sense of vitriol about the film; not only that, but it’s a great example of physical absurdist comedy of the kind that only Matt and Trey can pull off. I don’t know – maybe I’m going to hell, but I thought it was absolutely hilarious.
One comment accuses Matt and Trey of “resorting to cheap stunts just to appear relevant”. Although I do not agree, I do think that the day South Park loses its sharp satirical eye it will cease to become relevant and lose a vital part of what makes it special. After thirteen seasons it’s difficult not to fall into the trap of settling into an established pattern and my only worry with South Park is that as soon as something happens in the world of celebrity (Britney’s breakdown, Obama’s inauguration, Susan Boyle’s success), there seems to be an episode about it.
Matt and Trey are under contract to produce 14 shows a year until 2011. As long as they never become slaves to their creation, or lose their hunger or their edge (as The Simpsons sadly did some time ago), South Park will continue to be hilarious, offensive and relevant in equal doses. Every series has its ups and downs but mostly South Park is still the most consistently brilliant comedy on TV. Mostly.