Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

South Park: Elementary School Musical

Sweet, another movie spoof! Although I have to say, this one I thoroughly enjoyed. Most likely that's because I can relate to the boys' baffling "This is what's cool now?" appraisal of the High School Musical "phenomenon," which is apparently a real thing and not, as I have long suspected, some conspiratorial ruse perpetrated by the Disney corporation, People magazine, Wal-Mart, and Access Hollywood. According to IMDB, HSM 3: Contractual Obligation has already pulled in more than $60 million and climbing domestically, and seeing those numbers–not to mention the fact that something called a "Zac Efron" (which I believe is some sort of Aryan/Shetland pony hybrid) is advertised on my TV nearly every hour on the hour–really makes me identify with Cartman's sentiment: "If this is what's cool now, I no longer have any connection to the real world." (Of course, I also feel that way whenever I look at the Nielsen ratings and Billboard Hot 100, and have yet to try offing myself.)
Seriously, I don't get the "musical revival" thing. There's probably some smarty-pants Slate article out there that draws a correlation between a downward-trending economy and rising demand for big, splashy fantasy worlds where problems are solved with an old-fashioned song and dance, but it's late and I'm too lazy to find it. All I know is I'm not on board with this whole razzle-dazzle renaissance–and I never have been, actually. That's probably because I grew up in a theatre household; my mother has been active as a stage manager, props designer, and occasional actress since I was a kid, so over the years I've been dragged to every goddamn Andrew Lloyd Webber musical you can name, as well as some by playwrights who aren't nearly so subtle and nuanced. As a result, I'm incurably infected with musical theater. I loathe the fact that I know the words to half of A Chorus Line, I can't stand the sound of Michael Crawford's voice, and just the opening bars of Rent's "Seasons Of Love" are enough to send me into a flying fit of rage. (Albeit one full of tolerance and understanding, especially for HIV-ridden street musicians.) As far as I'm concerned, if The Who didn't do the soundtrack, it's not that one episode of Buffy, or it doesn't have Rick Moranis and a giant, man-eating plant, then go on and sing out, Louise–right the fuck out into heavy traffic.
Anyway, so yeah… I'm very, very grateful I'm not stuck in school right now dealing with High School Musical mania, which is where the boys suddenly find themselves in this episode, with all of the other students around them suddenly bursting into up-tempo pop numbers about "being special in your own way." Leading the pack is the new third-grader, Bryden, whom all the girls dig–so much so that Stan starts to worry that he's going to lose Wendy to him because he can sing and dance better than anyone. Ironically, Bryden doesn't even want to sing: He'd rather play basketball, but his abusive father won't let him. Meanwhile, the boys' inability to get with the choreographed program causes their already fragile social standing to slip considerably, to the point where they're hanging out with a heretofore unseen lisping diabetic named Scott Malkinson. Despite making a pact to never give in to HSM peer pressure, Stan finally convinces them that they've hit rock bottom ("Right now everyone thinks Butters is cooler than any of you"), and the guys study up for their big closing number. Of course, by then it's totally moot: Bryden has officially given up performing for sports (his dad was apparently swayed by the awesome "jock jam" power of Gary Glitter and Queen) and it turns out that nobody cared much about the singing in the first place. Everyone just liked Bryden for Bryden, which just goes to prove the old saw that being yourself is always the best way to win friends, as long as you're super cool and good looking.
All in all, a simple, very straightforward little satire of one of the more ridiculous artforms known to man–albeit one that was a bit disingenuous, considering how often South Park characters have broken into song. I especially enjoyed Stan finally trying to join in with his ever-present backing chorus and only coming up with snatches of "I've Been Working On The Railroad" and "Happy Birthday," as well as any of Cartman's "Oh God, shut up!" reactions–which is exactly how I always feel. And while I'm sure that had I actually seen HSM, I might have appreciated all the specific allusions more (feel free to out yourself in the comments if you like), something tells me I'll live just fine without. Add to that a funny, albeit honkingly obvious closing song ("Do what you want to do / Just make sure what you're doing is popular with everyone else") and you pretty much have an A episode…
Except then South Park had to pull one of its old "run an already sub-par joke into the ground" tricks and have Bryden's dad Mr. Queermo (Get it? He likes theater and is thus ultra super mega gay!) be an over-the-top swishy stereotype doling out limp-wristed slaps to everyone, including his wife, the school basketball coach, and two intervening officers from Child Protective Services. Not particularly funny the first couple of times, even less so the last dozen. Overall Mr. Queermo just felt like lazy, sophomoric shorthand–although I suppose one could argue that this was "meta-commentary" on the kind of shallowly sketched archetypes you usually find in musicals. Eh. Yeah, still not funny, though, and it dumbed down an otherwise silly-smart episode that nevertheless ranks as one of the standouts from what's proven to be a very hit-or-miss season.
Grade: B+
Stray observations:
- This is yet another episode where the boys learn that, beyond their tiny clique, not very many people at school like them. Is this building to something?
- The writers have been crazy with the continuity callbacks lately–first with the allusion to Indy getting raped two episodes ago, and now Clyde's response to, "Where have you guys been?" ("Peru.")
- "Go right back to your room and sing a ballad, mister!"