“The City On The Edge Of Forever” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 6/17/1998)
Almost halfway into the second season of South Park, a number of episodes have proven to be funnier and more complex than I remembered the show being at this stage. But what’s most interesting about many of the duds is that, despite the attacks once made against the show as being part of a plot to dumb down America, they’re overly cerebral. I don’t mean that they were too brilliant—not by a long shot—but that, especially compared to most people who’ve had success working in commercial television, Parker and Stone are almost all head, with relatively little heart and, at this point in their careers, very little grasp of (and maybe less interest in) the emotional investment that people put into a favorite TV show. I also suspect that they’d already spent enough time thinking about the world of South Park that they were starting to get bored with it. On a normal show, their boredom might have taken the form of repeating themselves and going soft on the characters, cashing in on the affection viewers had developed for them.
Parker and Stone’s natural reaction to boredom was to try to think their way out of it, and at times in the show's second season, the show got very meta, commenting on the mechanics of how TV series that aren’t as easy to write as they used to be, when the concepts were fresh and the creative teams were hungry and bursting with ideas. The infamous first-season cliffhanger swung that way, and when Parker and Stone withheld the promised payoff, they were making a joke on the idea that anyone would seriously be sitting on the edge of his seat wanting to learn the identity of a cartoon character’s father, paying their audience the tribute of assuming that they had the same sophisticated distance from the show that its creators did. For this act of generosity, they were rewarded with the news—which came in the form of angry phone calls and email and insults from radio shock jocks—that millions of people who they’d assumed were on their wavelength were much less hip that they assumed.
Cliffhangers amount to a desperate plea from a hit show to its audience, a promise to remain hot if everyone will tune in again next fall, after having spent the summer caring about what happens next. “City On The Edge Of Forever” satirizes the most pathetically desperate and half-assed of all episodic TV devices: the clip show. This is a real cult item of an episode. The cultishness starts with the title, which is of course appropriated from an episode of Star Trek that, depending on what kind of geek you happen to be, is either famous for being the best episode of science-fiction television ever, or for having been so badly screwed up after the script left Harlan Ellison’s hands that it stands as proof that network TV can never be great. The kids are aboard the school bus when—like the school bus in the hit art-house film of the year before, The Sweet Hereafter—it plunges off the road. The bus ends up teetering on the edge of a cliff, with the kids trapped inside while the driver, Mrs. Crabtree, goes off in search of help. (There's a direct Star Trek reference when one of the kids, wearing a red T-shirt, defies Mrs. Crabtree's instructions to remain on the bus and is immediately torn apart by a big scary monster that's lurking in the shadows.) Mrs. Crabtree is picked up by a Travolta-esque truck driver, more or less accidentally launches a successful career as a stand-up comic, and forgets all about the kids. TV stardom, however, does nothing to alleviate her usual negativity, which seems to have deeper roots than has ever been suggested before. She’s last seen sitting in the woods with the truck driver, telling him, “Success is hollow, Mitch, hollow like a dead tree.”
Meanwhile, the parents of South Park, having noticed that their children never returned home from school, conclude that they’ve all run away. “It’s only a matter of time,” says Kyle’s mom, “before they’re selling their bodies and buying smack.” Preferring to get caught up in a national media crisis to actually trying to find out what happened to their own kids, the parents end up on TV, singing a “We Are The World”-style anthem for missing children, while their kids, watching on their portable TV devices, are aghast. It sounds like a lot of plot, and the missing-children story has real potential to turn into something, but it’s really just filler for the centerpiece: On the bus, the kids keep referring to things they’ve done on previous episodes, launching flashbacks that at first seem to be clips from those episodes, but are slightly different. As in the pilot, the boys try to use Cartman to make contact with the extraterrestrials who have anally probed him and abducted Kyle’s little brother, but instead of a satellite dish, an ice cream truck emerges from Cartman’s ass. In other vignettes, Kenny succeeds in killing Death, the monster Scuzzlebutt is revealed to have Brent Musburger (instead of Patrick Duffy) for a leg, Cartman's father is revealed to be John Elway, and Mr. Garrison heroically wastes Kathie Lee Gifford, revealing that she is the vessel of an alien monster that slithers out of her shattered head.
This could all be seen as very self-indulgent, but it could also be seen as a gift to the hardcore fans, since nobody else is going to even get the point, let alone the joke, of the altered “flashbacks.” It’s all very clever and intricate; it just isn’t especially funny. (Compare it to the fake clip show episodes of Community, and all you can do for Parker and Stone is give them points for being ahead of the curve.) Finally, Parker and Stone have to end it somehow, so they resort to the revelation that it was all a dream—a dream experienced by Stan, who, before waking up, dreams that it was all a dream by Cartman. (At the end of Stan’s dream, Cartman wakes up, expresses relief that it was all a dream, and then is joined by his mother, who sits on the bed with him as they both gorge themselves on live beetles. I’m thinking that somebody with a new VCR had been treating himself to a Luis Buñuel marathon.) This is presumably a joke on that other lame TV tradition: Using a dream reveal as an excuse to spend the bulk of an episode doing weird shit. Parker and Stone couldn’t find a way to make it feel substantially different than the real thing, though.
- I can’t tell where there’s a thematic reason for it or if it’s just one of those fluky things, but this episode is a real bonanza of meaningless celebrity voice cameos. Musburger and Jay Leno both play themselves, and there’s also an appearance by Henry Winkler. Since the episode includes a fake clip from Winkler’s old show Happy Days, he naturally supplies the growling of the big, scary monster.
“Summer Sucks” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired 6/24/1998)
This one is much less clever than “City,” but it’s at least twice as funny. The school term ends and the kids rush out to spend the summer doing fun stuff, but there’s nothing fun to do in their little podunk mountain town, especially since the place is geared toward winter sports. The boys try sledding and building a dirt snowman, but these modest pursuits scarcely make up for the lack of the only real source of summer fun: scary, powerful fireworks. It seems that the Colorado legislature, perhaps under the malign influence of Barbra Streisand, has passed a law banning any decent fireworks, in the wake of a terrible accident. Or as someone puts it, “Just because some stupid North Park kid blew his hand off, we don’t get to buy M-80s?”
Uncle Jimbo comes to the rescue. He and Ned drive to Mexico to load up on the noisy treasures that are still easily obtainable there. (“Everything’s legal in Mexico. It’s the American way.”) Meanwhile, the Mayor decides to take advantage of the fact that “snakes” are still considered lame enough to be sold legally and contracts for a snake the size of King Kong to use in the town’s Fourth of July celebration. After a musical performance (“I think it’s ‘Stars And Stripes’”) by the school band that would move Jandek to ask for his money back, the snake is lit, with disastrous results. As the enormous, writhing, crackling monster unwinds itself through the town, a TV announcer urges viewers to “stay inside, don’t breathe the ashen air or light any giant snakes in the future.” Desperate, the boys phone up Chef, asking if he’ll cancel his vacation in Aruba to come home and help. “Dude,” says Stan after Chef hangs up, “I think he told us to go fuck ourselves.” “How’s that going to help?” asks Kyle.
1998 was a big year for gross-out humor, and “Summer Sucks” has a couple of moments in this vein that are sublime. While everyone else is bemoaning the lack of summer fun, Cartman, in a rare burst of honest initiative, signs up for swimming lessons at the public pool. (“I am trying,” he says when the other boys make fun of him, “to make the best of a bad situation. I don’t need to listen to a bunch of hippie freaks living in denial.” That line may not look like much in cold print, but when it’s delivered in Cartman’s distinctive voice, it’s up there with the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V.) Cartman begins to see a flaw in his plan when he realizes that the pool is constantly full of little kids who are peeing in it, but he finally gets it to himself for a minute at the height of the crisis. Then, after Jimbo and Ned unleash a Tijuana bottle rocket that destroys the snake, an army of little kids charge into the pool, all facing Cartman at the far end, and the water instantly turns the color of lemon meringue. This is topped by the return of Chef, who comes home to find that the fallen ash has left everyone wearing blackface and, misunderstanding their intention, orders the townspeople to line up so he can begin administering the necessary ass whuppings. It’s nice, especially at this point, to see a stereotypical racist image on this show that’s unmistakably used as a joke about those images.
- Cartman’s reaction to learning that the class scapegoat is an orphan: “Your parents are dead? God damn, you suck, Pip!”
- In crisis mode, the Mayor picks up the phone and barks, “Get me the Mayor! [Pause.] I know that, smartass. I was being ironic.”
- The best celebrity guest appearance on the show ever, at least for Comedy Central fans of a certain age, may be Mr. Garrison’s visit to Dr. Katz—i.e., Jonathan Katz, in character as the star of the animated series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, and rendered in the distinctive “Squigglevision” style of that show. Mr. Garrison is coming apart at the seams over the disappearance of his puppet sidekick, Mr. Hat. Dr. Katz listens to him for a while and then patiently explains to Mr. Garrison is in denial about his own homosexuality, and that Mr. Hat is so important to him because he projects his real sexual desires onto the puppet. Suddenly, the snake breaks through the window and immolates Dr. Katz, much to Mr. Garrison’s satisfaction. As Philip Marlowe used to say, the problem with some lines of work is that nobody ever happily paid money to hear somebody tell them the truth.