It’s the dawn of another season of South Park—the 15th, according to carbon-dating. It’s doubtful anyone has more conflicted feelings about the fact that this silly little show is still on the air than Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who are big, important Broadway impresarios now, and who would much rather be poring over the trades in their corner booth at Sardi’s than making little construction paper kids fart. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but if you haven’t yet, check out this Hollywood Reporter profile for some idea of where they’re coming from these days.
They seem exhausted, right? At the time of the interview, their show hasn’t even opened yet and already they’re talking about being overburdened by the demands of The Book Of Mormon, and lamenting the fact that they’re contractually obligated to keep churning out more episodes of their meal ticket through 2013, give or take an apocalypse. Stone, at least, pretty much looks at South Park like it’s a big-ass cartoon millstone around his neck: “It’s this curse,” Stone says. “And when we are doing it, I hate it. I’m pissed off and I’m tired, and every single Tuesday I say, ‘This is the worst show we’ve ever done!’ It’s brutal.” Sounds like a recipe for hilarity!
Of course, this interview obviously, purposefully caught Stone at his most stressed out, and even amidst the whining he acknowledges, “South Park is way bigger than either of us,” adding that believing in this larger cause is what keeps him going. Still, this season might just be the biggest test yet of that commitment: Unlike previous years, they’ll only have one week to write each new episode—no pre-season prep time, no writers retreat to brainstorm stories—which means they’ll be “scribbling ideas on Thursdays and working nonstop till the early hours of the following Wednesday morning, the very day each episode airs.” It would seem that anyone who’s complained that South Park has felt kind of thrown together recently now has the evidence to back up those comments, with links and everything.
On the other hand, that time constraint could also force them to kick out the jams: Pressure makes diamonds, to quote noted comedy writer George S. Patton, and that quick turnaround might end up producing some of South Park’s freshest material yet. Not that “Human CentiPad” is necessarily “fresh.” Hell, Apple is already such a moldy target for satire, even The Simpsons did it. Similarly, making fun of Human Centipede officially crossed over into tired meme territory right around the time my old alma mater set it to music. But if this is what South Park looks like when it’s produced under such incredible limitations, it’s downright amazing that “Human CentiPad” came out as well as it did, with three strong plots that managed to come together without too much convolution, and a comic rhythm that was fleet-footed and sure. Obviously, being a little punch-drunk suits these dudes.
And as with so many of South Park’s satires, “Human CentiPad” avoided blandly repeating the broader Apple jokes of the past primarily by zeroing in on a single ridiculous aspect—that of those goddamn “User Agreement” screens that barf up 50 pages of slight contract revisions every time you’re forced to download a minutely tweaked copy of iTunes. Any Apple user exhausted by that Software Update icon always bouncing in their dock could probably sympathize with Kyle, who simply clicks the “Agree” button without reading what he’s agreeing to—a carelessness that shocks those around him, because everyone reads those agreements (“How else would you know what you’re agreeing to?”) and, ultimately, leads to him getting his mouth sewed to the anus of a Japanese man.
As it turns out, those user agreements have all kinds of hidden terms and conditions that go beyond just allowing Apple to tell everyone in the world what stupid music you listen to, and then giving them the information needed to sell you more just like it. They also apparently allow Apple to perform random blood tests, say that you’re okay with people Tasing your dad while you’re being kidnapped (and that you won’t even complain about it), and that you’re also totally cool with Steve Jobs sewing you together with two other capricious souls in order to create the world’s first part-human, part-centipede email and web-browsing device. Indeed, as Kyle spends the entire episode learning, maybe you should read them.
That’s probably not what they actually say—I don’t read ‘em either—but the argument that Apple is quietly stomping all over its users’ individual liberties certainly has some basis in fact. The bit about Kyle being tracked through his locations information? Totally true. The stuff about “the inner workings of Apple being secret to all users”? Yep, this is also well documented—and as a former Apple employee, I can tell you that even they are kept in the dark until Steve Jobs’ benevolent head appears on a screen to tell them what they need to know, exactly when they need to know it. Basically, it’s an Orwellian nightmare with foosball tables. Should you cross the Ministry of Apple, you’re probably not going to find yourself visited by “business casual G-men” (awesome, by the way). But all the while, the softly sinister Apple continues to expand its reach and build its insanely cult-like following: As Cartman says here, “Everyone knows that everything but Apple is stupid!” Almost a religion unto itself, Apple obviously falls right within South Park’s anti-authoritarian wheelhouse, and the episode managed to make that point while still having room for two separate scenes of a human centipede farting. Good stuff.
Even better, it also had a classic Cartman “Whatever! I do what I want!” subplot, one that involved the greedy little bastard making specific, occasionally oddly romantic demands of his mother before she “fucked” him by not buying him a proper iPad, as opposed to the one he’d shoddily constructed out of an iPad cover and a sheet of glass. Cartman’s storyline essentially boiled down to one joke told a dozen different ways, but it was a funny joke, and it eventually led to Dr. Phil asking, in his soothing Dr. Phil voice, “Your mom fucked you at Best Buy?” And in case you're taking notes, that is how you do comic escalation. Weaving Cartman into the larger plot by having Dr. Phil, Steve Jobs, and Best Buy (who you'd think might distance themselves from the kid whose mom fucked him there, but okay) stage a “clear PR stunt,” and present Cartman with the Human CentiPad as a way of helping him overcome his trauma was a huge stretch—one that all but nullified the believability of an episode about Apple kidnapping its users to create human flesh-worm computers. But again, who cares, because it led to this line: “It does e-mail and web browsing and it shits in Kyle’s mouth? This is the greatest thing that has ever been invented!”
The storyline involving Kyle’s dad and the other kids (including Kenny, reduced here to mere scenery after so much Mysterion action last season) took its own ridiculous twists before he ended up in the exact same spot to save the day. But along the way, the episode nailed the breezy, dehumanizing manner with which the Apple Store’s Genius Bar often processes its user cattle: forcing them to wait helplessly for a moment of precious Genius time, empathizing distractedly with your personal crisis behind a mysterious clatter of keys, and finally, offering “store credit” as the salve to heal all wounds. Of course, having them perform a mystical “quickening of the Council of Geniuses” and other dark rituals in order to free Kyle was an obvious exaggeration, but—again speaking as a former Apple employee—the company’s actual hierarchy is only slightly less like Scientology than the show made it out to be. That their solution boiled down to Gerald renouncing all PC religion and finally becoming an Apple (complete with silly pointy hat) really drove that home.
All in all, a target that’s already been well-bashed, but handled here with a deft balance of sharp observation and grotesque absurdity. (Even better, a welcome lack of obligatory preachiness: Other than maybe always reading your user agreements, did anyone “learn anything today”?) It’s the sort of thing I believe South Park does better than any other show on the air when it wants to, and all over again I’m looking forward to Parker and Stone doing it some more—even if they’re not entirely sure they’re up for it.
- Did anyone else get lots of commercials for the Motorola Xoom tablet? Now that’s clever ad placement.
- This is the last time I’ll say “as a former Apple employee”: The scene where Gerald is asked, “Do you agree to care about your membership, and prove that you care by purchasing AppleCare?” As a former Apple employee forced to turn so many out into the cold for the sin of not owning AppleCare, this line made me laugh and laugh.
- Hard to pick a favorite Cartman line to his mother, but even without the element of surprise, the delivery was probably best in this first one: “Would you mind loaning me some of your lipstick Mom? Because I want to at least look pretty the next time you decide to fuck me.”
- More fun with pedophilia: The guy in the Dr. Phil audience who says that before he fucked his son, he’d at least kiss him, followed by a creepy smooch, was one of the episode’s funniest moments—particularly that quick reprise at the end.
- If you waited this long to try and register email@example.com as your Apple ID, you’ll probably have to settle for something like firstname.lastname@example.org.
- I’m probably going to get strafed in the comments because I didn’t pinpoint the references being made in the Genius ritual scenes, but let the record show that I tried. As far as my limited knowledge of a “quickening” goes, I do know that what they were doing wasn’t quite the same as what happens in the Highlander movies, so I don’t think that’s it (though I admit I could be wrong). Also, I’ve Googled all variations I can think of on “Toran Rah” to avoid being yelled at, but no dice. Please fill me in if you know it.
- On that note, because South Park reviews seem to bring out the worst in the Internet, here’s my usual plea for some measure of civility: Comedy is subjective, assigning grades to these is often somewhat arbitrary and should not be considered a substitute for reading the review, a grade higher or lower than the one you might give it should not necessarily be taken as a personal insult, death is but a door, time is but a window, etc. Take a breath and let’s talk it out.