Thursday, February 25, 2010

Gonna have myself a time

The Simpsons may have lost its sheen a long time ago, but it’s surprising how sharp South Park can still be.

That’s a little unfair on Homer’s crew. While general consensus has the Simpsons going downhill ever since the name Armin Tamzarian was first heard, I still do my best to never miss a new episode. It’s still occasionally biting and still funny enough for a few laughs, and has never been anything less than completely entertaining.

The Simpsons might not be living up to the incredibly high standards it set for itself, but a new Simpsons – or even a repeat episode that hasn’t been done to death – is still stronger than the vast number of comedies out there.

When South Park came along in the late nineties, it was written off as Simpsons’ louder, stupider and crasser cousin. There had been no end of cartoon comedies trying to cash in on the enormous success generated by the Simpsons in that decade, and most of the first wave had already fallen away. (Who even remembers Duckman and The Critic?)

So when South Park came out and featured a massive radar antenna spontaneously generating itself out of an eight-year-old’s butt, it was definitely funny, but there were few signs the joke would last.

More than a decade later, and for this viewer, there is still no funnier cartoon showing on television. While its arguable that for sheer popularity, South Park is nowhere near the levels it saw in its first few years of existence, it’s still a remarkably relevant piece of entertainment that manages to still be predictably shocking as often as it is surprisingly thoughtful.

On the shocking front, one of the delights of watching a new episode of South Park is the idea that no matter how extreme it has been in the past, it can still be genuinely shocking. It could get away with things like seeing Ben Affleck get a handjob from a young boy, although suffered some blowback when it managed to annoy the entire Catholic Church with the notorious bleeding Virgin Mary episode.

Each viewer will have their own limits of acceptability, but that first Christmas Critters episode where they launched into a blood orgy ten minutes into the show might have been the worst thing I’d ever seen on television up to that point. But since then, the South Park crew have pushed the boundaries of good taste even further, with the sight of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg literally raping Indiana Jones in a variety of disturbing movie pastiches something I still can’t clear out of my head.

This means South Park is consistently raising the ire of the easily offended, but questioning matters of taste and offence is something the show does better than anybody else.

But it’s not just the ability to whip out some genuine shock value that keeps the show fresh – it’s also marvellously topical and amazingly clever. The short lead time before each episode sees events in the real world parodied within days and watching any new episode month after it first aired can already make it seem out of date.

Its skewering of idiotic values and creeds is where the programme does its best, and the one thing that keeps me coming back every time is how cleverly this hatred of stupidity is presented. The clever aspect can often be the way it presents the piss-take and you might think you’re watching a show that’s making fun of one particular brand of stupidity, only to suddenly realise it’s really making fun of James Cameron’s Dances With Smurfs.

Take a recent episode that started out as a parody of the events seen in the genuinely horrible documentary The Cove, as hordes of angry Japanese descend on water parks and slaughter every whale and dolphin in sight

For an episode that got much of its laughs out of this mindless slaughter, that particular show worked on several levels at once. It wasn’t just the cultural differences between East and West (best exemplified in a killer last line), it also made fun of perennially stupid reality shows, green activists more interested in their public profile than any actual accomplishments and the idiocy of generational blame for atrocities.

For a show to be that clever and insightful after so many episodes – after so many years - is a remarkable feat helped by the fact that Trey Parker, Matt Stone and the rest of the South Park crew are genuinely funny people. They have crafted so many killer lines and situations, while always pushing on for more.

Still, the damn show is going to get me killed one day. I’m sure of it. Thanks to that recent episode making fun of bikers, I can’t help muttering “brumbrumbrum” under my breath every time a noisy motorcyclist goes past. This won’t end well.

But it will be totally worth it.