Thanks to our friendly debate in the TV Club comments last week, Josh Modell and I have agreed to trade off on regular coverage of South Park, something that's definitely long overdue. The point of alternating, by the way, is that the two of us discovered that we each approach South Park very differently: Me, I appreciate the show's way with ripped-from-the-headlines social satire. Josh, on the other hand, likes farts.
OK maybe I'm oversimplifying a bit. Here's my take: While Trey Parker and Matt Stone have insisted that their main goal is to be funny–and many more of you have insisted that looking for insightful commentary from South Park is a fool's errand–I personally always like the show more when there's some sort of timely allusion to current events wrapped up with a "lesson." (More often than not that lesson is "Don't be such a douche," but still.) That's not to say I don't enjoy it as pure comedy–I just enjoy it a little more when it says something relevant. I realize I'm probably in the minority on that: Often when I tell people I know that I never miss an episode of South Park, they look at me like I just admitted to having a subscription to Maxim, as their impression of the show is that it's just a loose collection of dick jokes.
If any of those people that I so strenuously defend South Park to finally tuned in tonight, their assumptions were probably confirmed. "Eek, A Penis!" was pretty much a 20 minute dick joke, thanks to yet another chapter in Ms. Garrison's endless sexual confusion and one wily penis-mouse. The allusions to Thomas Beatie (the "pregnant man") dropped early on suggested that South Park might be going for one more grand statement on genetic engineering, but as it turned out, it was more of a set-up for one long punchline about women being afraid of penises (huh?) and a lot of silly physical comedy involving Garrison chasing down a mouse that had his dick growing out of its back.
As Josh would say, "Yeah, but was it funny?" Yeah, it was the first time we saw it, in "Mr. Garrison's Fancy New Vagina." But this time around it seemed like mostly filler, a means to an end to restore Mr. Garrison to his pre-Season-Nine self and perhaps finally resolve his neverending sexual identity crisis. No complaints here; I think they've probably milked the "Garrison as a woman" conceit for all it's worth--though often to hilarious effect ("Scissor me timbers!"). But as a bookend to "Mr. Garrison's Fancy New Vagina," "Eek, A Penis!" felt like a weak capper, essentially rewriting that episode but replacing all the trenchant digs at America's obsession with cosmetic surgery with time-killing, Benny Hill-style tomfoolery, such as Garrison accidentally grabbing another man's penis in the sauna. (Though I have to admit that the random An American Tail nod was a showstopper.)
But forget all that for a moment; no matter what the title says, this episode was really all about the Cartman subplot, which didn't even bother trying to dovetail with the main one. Normally Cartman episodes are always the strongest: He's such a well-defined character that you can put him in just about any situation and it's bound to be gold. And indeed, the idea of him becoming a mentor to Denver's tough inner-city kids started off promising.
Unfortunately this episode didn't really allow Cartman to be Cartman, since he spent most of it trapped in an awkward Stand And Deliver parody. I admit I'm not really up on what the kids are into these days, but does Stand And Deliver still fly as a pop-culture reference? Would anyone under, say, the age of 25 get that Cartman gave himself an Edward James Olmos makeover, right down to the cardigan vests and the way he tucked his hand in his waistband? Would they recognize that the way he pronounced "calculus" (pretty funny) or repeatedly exclaimed, "How do I reach these keeds!" (not so funny the third, fourth, or seventh time) was lifted wholesale from a marginally popular 20-year-old film?
I guess it doesn't really matter: Even as someone who appreciated the reference I found it distracting, particularly since Cartman's lesson plan–teaching his students to cheat "the white people way"–worked well enough on its own, making the allusion sort of superfluous. After last week's "YouTube massacre" scene, I worried aloud that South Park was heading further down the dark path of cheap-and-easy "spoof" gags; to me, this again bordered on High School High levels of obviousness. Even the attempt to relate it to current events fell flat, mostly because I don't give a shit about New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. What, there are no other historical examples of cheaters who've prospered?
But I guess I can't complain too much when an episode spits out deliciously barbed truths like Cartman's speech about how "rich white girls get ahead because they get abortions when they're young." Or making his class repeat, "I misinterpreted the rules" before exclaiming, "Now you sound like white people!" That there is the South Park I love. Not so much the one that resorts to easy shock humor like, "Get an AIDS test because your wife's a dude, faggot!" That's the show my Doubting Thomas friends always think I'm watching, and tonight they were kind of right.
- Has anyone else noticed South Park's rampant product placement for Dr Pepper? It pops up all the time in the background–tonight it made a cameo appearance in Mr. Stotch's shopping cart–but I can't find any reference to it being an official sponsor. Is it possible the animators are just really big fans of the stuff? (No argument there, because Dr Pepper is awesome.)