I vaguely recall an interview Trey Parker and Matt Stone once gave—most likely in the Goin’ Down To South Park documentary, though I can’t confirm it—where they talked about how their ultimate goal for South Park would be for their audience to one day look back on those early episodes and be amazed that the show used to be about these four kids in a small town in Colorado. And judging by its 200th episode, I’d say that goal has been, well, pretty much realized. Had anyone been cryogenically frozen around 1999 (say, right after the episode “Prehistoric Ice Man”) and unthawed in time for tonight, they would probably have two questions: 1) “Tortadas, Taco Bell? Really? I’ve been frozen for more than a decade, and you’re still just shuffling around the same ingredients and then giving them made-up names?” And 2) “What the hey is going on here?” Because there was hardly a joke in tonight’s episode that didn’t rely almost completely on context established many episodes and, in some cases, many years before.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s always nice when a show rewards an audience for its loyalty with the old “callback,” and “200” was full of references to stuff that reached all the way to the beginning of South Park’s run, a time when—just to put things in horrifying perspective—its current fan base of 21-year-old college kids were also third-graders, just like the characters were in South Park’s first season. (Think about that as you stare into the bathroom mirror tonight.) That’s a long time to be around for a TV show, and to have amassed enough material to make an entire episode out of winks and nudges to stuff that only avid watchers would understand is something not a lot of shows can ever achieve—or even aspire to.
Of course, actually do that and you risk evoking the same old criticism you get from running the dreaded "clip show": As Stan chastised Kyle and Cartman, even with all of the metatextual laughs that come from acknowledging it, you really are just “rehashing a bunch of old stuff”—and most of “200” was stuff that was funnier the first time. For example: Both “Trapped In The Closet” and “Fat Butt And Pancake Head” are classic episodes, in my estimation; it would take a lot to top them. So even though the first couple dozen times through the deliberately belabored “Tom Cruise is a fudgepacker” bit were amusing, and I genuinely laughed at “Jennifer Lopez” arguing with Cartman over whether Taco Bell still carries Enchiritos (likely no, but they’ve definitely got tortadas!), there’s just no way these scenes could ever have compared to R. Kelly pulling out his gun! or the first time I heard “Taco-Flavored Kisses,” you get me?
Man, I’ve talked a lot about tacos so far.
So anyway, it’s hard to grade “200” on its own merits, since the elements of the show that were wholly original were few—and really, that was sort of the point. Throwing together all the celebrities the show has ever made fun of, then having them start a class action lawsuit that spiraled jarringly into a wacky conspiracy to steal Mohammed’s "goo," one in which they were racing against a similarly vaguely defined effort headed by the suddenly power-mad Ginger Separatist Movement, all while Cartman and Jennifer Lopez/con man Mitch Connor were running their own scam on the side in between tracking down Cartman’s real father—I mean, when you write it out like that, it sounds as though there was a hell of a lot going on, but in practice it was just a chain of knowingly silly excuses to loop in all these old “greatest hits” characters and plotlines. And to cap it off, the episode abruptly ended on a “Pandemic”-like cliffhanger, nowhere close to a resolution and with no indication that it would continue. (Though my suspicion is that it will.)
True, there was an underlying message about free speech and what is and isn’t acceptable to laugh at, wrapped up in the usual metaphor of having the characters talk about South Park, the town, when they really mean South Park, the show. But again, these are points that South Park has already made, and it’s not as though they were made subtly. Think of Jared beating the dead horse in “Jared Has Aides”—or more pointedly, “Cartoon Wars,” an episode that already did a whole riff on the “Mohammed thing,” to the extent that even Kyle couldn’t believe they were dealing with it again. Are these arguments worth making more than once? Sure, absolutely. But still, funnier the first time when they weren’t just the thematic glue loosely holding together a bunch of other rehashes.
That brings us back to Parker and Stone’s long-ago hopes for the show and why I say they’ve only pretty much been realized. Because as opposed to, say, The Simpsons in its 200th episode—by which point it had assembled a huge supporting cast of uniquely realized characters, many of whom could and did sustain their own episodes (and who were arguably more popular than the Simpson family itself)—a huge chunk of South Park’s most memorable plotlines really have been driven by celebrity parody. I’m not sure if, in 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone truly envisioned their show as morphing into something whose default mode is mocking famous people in the news. It’s also strange to think about how many of those early 1997 episodes hold up better today (yes, even with their Kathie Lee Gifford and Patrick Duffy references) than the more recent episodes will 13 years from now, all because it was just about four kids in a small town in Colorado. And where “200” could have been an argument for the show’s timelessness against boring twits like me who are always pointing that fact out and worrying aloud about things becoming “dated,” well, it just felt more like yet another “Eh, whaddaya want from us? We’re just a silly cartoon that draws Paris Hilton coughing up semen, not fucking The West Wing” shrug, which is starting to become its defining attitude.
Luckily, it’s still pretty funny (even when I make it sound otherwise), so I will give it major, major points for hilariously ripping on Tim Burton, bringing back Mr. Hat, Sally Struthers, and even the new, improved Mecha-Streisand, and also for finally addressing that whole “Mohammed was in the SuperBestFriends!” thing—something that’s been bugging a lot of nitpickers who are even more seemingly humorless than me, pretty much ever since “Cartoon Wars” aired. Points, too, for managing to make self-referential jokes to the show’s milestone and increasingly rich history without resorting to lamely stringing together old clips. And again, this is really half a grade, as there’s the potential that this could all conclude next week in some awesome finale—hopefully one that manages to incorporate everyone left out of tonight’s action (Towelie, Big Gay Al, and the Crab People, for starters), then brings it all back down to earth in that small town in Colorado, just to remind us that after all these years, it’s still a place its creators (for all their inward mocking) genuinely care about.
- All that said, the takedowns of Tim Burton and Jimmy Buffett really are examples of something I love most about this show. For as much crap as South Park often gets—including from us—for building entire episodes around mocking celebrities, it’s stuff like telling Jimmy Buffett point blank that he plays “drunken frat boy monkey garbage” and Tim Burton that he hasn’t had an original idea since Beetlejuice and that he should "just have sex with Johnny Depp already" that puts it a notch above any other celebrity parody out there. No other show is so bluntly honest about telling people exactly why and how they suck, and that it took way less than 200 episodes to grow those kinds of balls is actually pretty amazing. Both that and the weird, wonderful Mr. Hat/Mitch Connor exchange were enough to raise this episode out of a straight C grade for me.
- Only the voice of Butters could elevate a wink-wink, Benny Hill-worthy line like, “How come you’re packing fudge, Mr. Cruise?”
- Not sure anyone could make “Release the kiken” funnier, however.
- “Buddha, don’t do coke in front of kids!”
- "Put it on! Do the voice!"
- Informal poll, since I know we’re gonna talk about it anyway: Do the Taco Bells in your area carry the Enchirito?