Saturday, 8 September 2012

TV: Has South Park jumped the shark?

With the world in the midst of economic meltdown, it is at times like these when difficult questions need to be asked. Has South Park ‘jumped the shark’?

There comes a point in all creative endeavours when you need to know when to call it a day. If you don’t know when to quit, there is an inevitable drop in quality and what made your creation so appealing in the first place becomes lost and often cheapened by later efforts. It is better to end at a high point than to take desperate measures to keep your creation alive. “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

On 20th September 1977, American TV audiences bore witness to the now infamous jumping the shark scene in Happy Days. Fonzie, dressed in swimming trunks and his trademark leather jacket, jumped over a great white shark on water skis. Suffice to say, the effort to draw in viewers back-fired. Losing sight of what made Happy Days special and betraying the show’s 1950s setting saw the beginning of the end of Happy Days. Although over 100 episodes were produced after the shark fiasco, the episodes waned in popularity and quality, and eventually the show was cancelled.

The same can be said of the Simpsons. Although recent episodes have produced the occasional moment of comic genius, the episodes do not compare in the quality and impact when the Simpsons was at its peak - the Simpsons has become a poor parody of what it used to be. For many, the Simpson’s shark jumping moment came when Seymour Skinner revealed that he was actually an impostor and that his real name was Arman Tanzarian. Characteristic of other jumping the shark moments, this episode betrayed Skinner’s character and the integrity of the show was called into question.

It has become apparent recently that South Park is the latest show to follow Fonzie over the shark pen. I have grown up with South Park and it has grown up with me. I remember watching the first episode ‘Cartman Gets an Anal Probe’ on Channel 4 as a spotty 15 year-old and almost wetting myself – at that moment it was the funniest thing I had ever seen, ever. Over the next few months, catchphrases from the show and the show’s irreverent toilet humour had spread throughout my school; you couldn’t walk down a corridor without hearing phrases such as “Oh my God, they killed Kenny”, “M’kay” or “Beefcake.” The early episodes of South Park appealed to my base sense of humour as a fifteen year old. As I grew older, and my humour became more refined, so did South Park.

From its third series, South Park has until recently maintained a sustained attack upon hypocrisy from a Libertarian standpoint. The political interventions are often incredibly poignant and sophisticated, drawing on pop-cultural references, surreal humour and unfettered confidence in dealing with controversial subjects. Our attitudes towards religion, politics, popular culture, activism, sexuality, disability and gender are some of the issues unflinchingly explored and mocked. Some of the most successful episodes combine a sense of social commentary with allegory and ridicule: episodes such as 2000’s ‘Chef Goes Nanners’ and 2001’s ‘Here Comes the Neighbourhood’ tackle the racial tensions that simmer below the surface of American culture; episodes such as 2002’s ‘Red Hot Catholic Love’ and 2003’s ‘The Passion of the Jew’ deal with the hypocrisy of the Catholic church’s role in the harbouring of paedophiles and its attitude towards Judaism.

South Park is now into its twelfth series and the cracks are clearly visible. Gone is the subtlety and sophistication of humour and cutting political commentary that has made South Park so enduring over the last decade. Instead, we have episodes which make cheap shots at being plain offensive and shocking for its own sake. The first episode
disease on to Kyle. The key theme in this episode is writers’ Parker and Stone’s assertion that nobody cares about AIDs anymore because AIDs is a retro disease “it’s so 1980s” – this is as sophisticated as the humour gets in this series. The rest of the series has seen Cartman making fun of a midget and eventually fighting with him, graphic scenes of Indiana startling effect. The latest series simply makes cheap jokes at the expense of victims of rape and people affected by terminal illness.

So, has South Park jumped the shark? The simple answer is yes. South Park arguably peaked between 2000 and 2005 (series four to series eight). If I were to locate the point that South Park jumped the shark I would have to point to two distinct moments. The first came at the beginning of the ninth series when Mr. Garrison has a sex change - a sex change which was subsequently reversed at the end of eleventh series. The second came at the start of the tenth series. After Issac Hayes left South Park, Parker and Stone killed off his character Chef with viciousness, presenting Chef as a paedophile who has joined a “kooky little club.” Hayes left South Park due to his involvement with Scientology, a religious cult which Parker and Stone had brutally deconstructed in the 2005 episode ‘Trapped in the Closet’.

With over 175 episodes under their belt, Stone and Parker have a lot to be proud of. If they cannot reach the peak of their earlier work, then I would argue that it would be best for them to bow out and move on to new projects. There is nothing more embarrassing than an artist forever trying to regain magic that has been lost, m’kay?

This article was originally published in Art Fist magazine, 2008.

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