With the recent return of South Park to our screens, Paul Fennessy examines the legacy of the best animated comedy series since The Simpsons.
The word ‘infamous’ was practically invented for shows like South Park. In the history of television, rarely has a programme ever evoked such consternation amongst an incredibly wide range of people. From Scientologists to Al Gore to YouTube, no one is averse to the show’s satirical gaze.
The rather basic animation which South Park adopts means an episode takes only one week to complete. This convenience gives its storylines scope to make reference to topical events, thereby retaining a relevancy to its humour which more intricately animated shows such as The Simpsons and Family Guy cannot match. An episode based on the Terri Schiavo controversy, for example, was shown at the time in which the real life controversy was on the verge of culminating.
For most fans, Cartman is emblematic of the show’s uncompromising unwillingness to pander to political correctness. This supposed child is also the nihilistic purveyor of such unwholesome feats as organising anti-Jewish, pro-Mel Gibson rallies and beating characters to death while humming the Dawson’s Creek theme tune.
Essentially, Cartman is the antithesis of every protagonist ever to grace a TV show. He has no redeeming features whatsoever. Moreover, he specialises in manipulating characters to suit his own end. A perfect example of his malevolent nature can be witnessed in the episode ‘Up the Down Steroid’, in which he pretends to be disabled in order to enter the Special Olympics.
Another brilliant creation is Stan’s dad, Randy, a character who exemplifies one of South Park’s recurring conceits, namely that adults are often more childish than children. This abnormally impressionable individual becomes involved in all sorts of farcical situations, such as acquiring addictions to computer games and drunkenly fighting with spectators at baseball games.
Also integral to the show’s success is its capacity to parody popular culture and in particular, movies. The result is consistently hilarious, whether it involves basing an entire episode around sending up The Lord of the Rings, or contriving fictional movie premises; “Adam Sandler is a guy, and he, uh, falls in love with a girl, but it turns out that she’s a golden retriever”, utters a blatantly disinterested Cartman to a bunch of impressed movie executives.
‘‘For most fans, Cartman is emblematic of the show’s uncompromising unwillingness to pander to political correctness’’
However, the show’s durability is perhaps its most impressive facet. It began in 1997 amidst a wave of controversy garnered by its foul mouthed main characters and its refusal to sentimentalise childhood.
The primary reason for the show’s longevity has been its ability to grow up (at least to some extent) with its audience. Whereas the first couple of seasons featured jokes concerning anal probes and talking poos, the latter few years have seen it develop a more complex worldview which has encompassed acute observations on censorship, religion and politics.
Whereas you could debate for hours over whether some of this material could have a debilitating effect on younger fans, one issue is for certain: any show which advocates the view that Paris Hilton is a ‘stupid spoiled whore’ rather than a role model for the young can only be a good thing.