South Park: “Raising The Bar”
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South Park: “Raising The Bar”

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South Park

“Raising The Bar”

Season 16, Episode 9

South Park’s ability to satirize the culture we ingest so often has been one of the series’ strengths over its run. From Paris Hilton to World Of Warcraft, Matt Stone and Trey Parker have always been able to carve up these figures and, in their own way, shame us by showing how shallow we are by investing so much time in these subjects. If there’s a problem with targeting the Honey Boo Boo phenomena it is that the original subject is so ridiculous, so surreal, that it almost transcends satire. The key word, of course, is almost, and thankfully, Trey and Matt are on their game in taking aim at both the titular tot beauty queen and the culture that indulges that family. And that culture is the nation’s obesity epidemic.

The episode starts with Cartman finally (FINALLY!) accepting the fact that, yes, he is fat, not just “big boned” or “festively plump.” Of course, as soon as Cartman comes to this revelation, any normal plot is turned on its head as Cartman embraces his fatness and gets his own mobility scooter and gets mad when he can’t access Kyle’s bathroom. All the while, things like the tip assistant to prevent rascal tipping further the idea of our culture as an enabling one, one that lets people reach the point where they need an automated arm just to right their scooters.

After a flurry of attacks from Cartman and a classic Cartman rant that references Honey Boo Boo, Kyle is finally turned on to what, exactly, Honey Boo Boo is. While the initial scenes of Honey Boo Boo aren’t all that funny, this isn’t the show’s fault, it’s just that the satirized scenes are still too close to the real thing. Eventually, Kyle utters the line at the center of the episode (and, really, of humanity right now): “It’s like something’s lowered the bar to the point that no one feels any shame any more.” Stan’s response is just as spot-on: “It’s not like the bar is this actual, physical thing.”

And this is where South Park takes a great left turn with the entrance of explorer-mode James Cameron who is setting out to prove the bar is an actual, physical thing and, full of that Cameron hubris, sets out to raise it. Only South Park would think to work in something like Cameron’s deep sea explorations into a storyline already involving Honey Boo Boo and obesity and, yet, make it work as commentary on what a shit culture we’ve made for ourselves and a spiraling shame cycle that makes this whole thing really hard to solve. Throw in Token’s secret plot to turn a planned documentary on Cartman into a Honey Boo Boo clone and you have so many threads that the episode could completely unravel. But, instead, the stories all manage to weave together into one message, one that Kyle has already said, point blank: No one has any shame anymore. It’s a far more effective form of satire than, say, the show’s attempt to take on Snooki and Jersey Shore a few seasons back.

The way the Cameron storyline finally squeezes in with everything else and the climactic fight between Cartman and Honey Boo Boo are both amusing moments. But nothing beats the meta moment in which Kyle looks at Stan, pondering when the bar was set so low, and says, “Maybe it was us.” With all my rambling about South Park and satire, it’s easy to forget that before the show got there, it was originally considered by critics as crass and low brow, relying on the shock humor of child characters being so obscene to get laughs, something that was also said of early episodes of The Simpsons, a show that, at its height, became one of the golden beacons of satire. Both of those shows have been on so long, it’s easy to forget their cruder early days or, in the case of The Simpsons, those glorious highs.

The end of the show is anti-climactic after this moment, but still manages a funny resolution, especially with Michelle Obama beating up Cartman and Cameron finally checking his ego… sort of. But it’s that one moment of navel-gazing, something the show has done before, that gives the episode a nice punch to it, an acknowledgement of the show’s crude beginnings and how far it’s come. The lowering of the bar for our culture would have happened whether South Park was around or not. And even if those early episodes did fall on the more trivial side of that kind of shock humor, they still managed to evolve into something beyond that, something that feeds off this continual of schlock we digest in a way that forces South Park to hold up a mirror to our culture. It’s its own weird self-propelling cycle, one that doesn’t show any signs of letting up any time soon, and I'm guessing Matt and Trey are totally okay with that.

Stray Observations

  • “I don’t have legs.”
  • “Can’t I just take a dump at Best Buy?”
  • Rascal tipping is a wonderful new sport, and I welcome it to our world.
  • Cartman riding his scooter around randomly while ranting was fantastic.
  • “I’m getting a pig heart!”
  • I love the James Cameron theme song. But not as much as the Randy Newman Fatty Doo Doo song.
  • Cold-hearted Token is my favorite Token.
  • Am I completely off-base with my assessment of that moment as being meta? I’m sure you’ll all let me know in the comments.