“Damien” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 2/4/98)
Watching the first five minutes of “Damien” is like eating a dirt sandwich. It starts out okay, with the kids gathered in Mr. Garrison’s classroom and Cartman passing out invitations to his birthday party, with specific assignments regarding which gifts each guest is expected to bring. (The kids are willing to put up with this crap because Cartman’s kick-ass birthday bash is pretty much the annual social event of the season.) It’s also established that Pip, the British urchin from another century, isn’t invited, and is, in fact, the class goat. Parker and Stone never did a particularly good job of explaining what the hell Pip is doing on the show at all, and finally supplanted him with Butters. Pip never did become much more than a placemat character, whereas Butters, as a creation, is touched with genius, but at least the inexplicable weirdness of Pip’s very presence helps account for the fact that he’s the kid who’s isolated and disdained by all the other kids, the one chosen by fate to never fit in.
Enter Damien, the new kid in school. With his perpetual glower framed by his black mop top and deadly-looking eyebrows, Damien looks like a lost Gallagher brother, and the voices chanting in Latin on the soundtrack are enough to tip off any slowpokes in the audience that we’re witnessing a sendup of The Omen, a movie that was more than 20 years old at the time of the original broadcast, not that timely relevance is an essential component of a great South Park episode. Then Mr. Garrison asks Damien where he’s from, and Damien says he’s from the seventh layer of Hell. “Oh, that’s exciting,” says Mr. Garrison. “my mother was from Alabama.” The he asks Damien about his father, and Damien says that his dad is the dark prince, and Mr. Garrison tells the other children, “We have royalty in our classroom.” You may just experience a flashback to the exact moment when you realized that you had outgrown Mad magazine. Anyway, since Damien is an outsider, all the other kids pick on him—they tell him his mom’s a “real dog,” which will provide moderate amusement to those who remember that movie really well—so he summons his demonic powers and turns Kenny into a platypus, which is when you know for sure that Parker and Stone have already gotten bored enough that they're just trying to think of something that'll at least be fun to draw.
Things start to pick up when the boys go to visit Jesus—identified by Father Maxi as “that guy from the public access show”—in his dressing room at the TV station. Although there have been glimpses of Jesus on TV earlier in the series, this is the first time he’s actually left the studio and interacted with the people of South Park, and the story here really showcases the brilliance of Parker and Stone’s conception of the Son of God as the star of a loser public access show, omnipresent and easily accessible, but pretty much totally ignored. But the people rally around him, because they know they’re supposed to—until the get a look at the dark prince, who materializes in response to Jesus’ challenge to face him in “the final battle between good and evil, only on Pay-Per-View.” It turns out that Satan has a couple hundred pounds on Jesus and is considerably more adept at trash talk. “I have such delightful horrors to unleash on you,” he intones in his miles-deep voice, to which Jesus can only reply, “Oh, yeah?” Impressed, the good people of South Park, who have all placed bets on Jesus to win the fight, contact their bookies and start switching sides.
By the time Mr. Mackey is counseling Damien on how to become popular by being “overly nice” and “passive” and “not retaliating” when the other kids knock him around—advice that, he boasts, has made Pip the center of affectionate attention he is today—it’s clear that this is really an episode about peer pressure and the unhappy fate of those who can’t find any peers, with Pip (who is too weird to get with the program) and Jesus (who is too good to know there is a program) as mirrors of each other. Pip, meanwhile, tries out Mr. Mackey’s advice, is dissatisfied with the results, and wins over the other kids in the most obvious way possible: by showing that he, too, can make the designated outcast Pip rue the day he was born. (He sends him hurtling into the air and explodes him into the confetti.) In the end, Damien is accepted by the other kids but forced to move on because his father’s business in town has come to an end: He’s faced Jesus in the ring and, of course, thrown the fight, having been the only person in town to have placed a bet on Jesus to win. The townspeople claim to have learned a valuable lesson from all this, but you know they’d do the same thing again in a heartbeat. “Jesus,” they ask, “can you forgive us?” “Aw, heck,” says Jesus, with a Pip-like fatalism. “Do I have a choice?”
- The character design of Satan is wonderful, and the character himself is well used in the story, though you couldn’t guess from this episode how rich and insanely sympathetic he’d become by the time Parker and Stone put him in bed with Saddam Hussein. (One line that’s funnier now than it was before the movie: a reporter asks Satan about “rumors of your involvement in the Gulf War.”) Maybe because the character grew so much afterwards, it feels like a strange omission that Satan and Damien never really have a scene together. Which may be part of the reason the Jesus-and-Satan stuff feels like a real South Park episode, and the stuff about Damien feels like notes for a South Park episode.
- Parker and Stone are careful to establish, at the end, that Pip somehow survives his ordeal at Damien’s hands. Apparently, in the original script, Pip was knocked off, but after giving it some thought, the creators decided that they shouldn’t be killing the schoolchildren, except for the endlessly resurrected Kenny. Then, a couple of years ago, they apparently had second thoughts and brought Pip back for his first appearance in almost a decade, just so they could waste the little booger.
- The fight between Jesus and Satan features one of the strangest celebrity cameos from the show’s brief history of featuring celebrity cameos: Michael Buffer, best known as the guy who goes “Let’s get ready to rrrrrrumble!” He plays Michael Buffer and shows up at ringside, where he says, "Let's get ready to rrrrrrumble!" Bringing in the actual guy just to do his catch phrase is the kind of thing The Simpsons might do without a thought, but it doesn’t seem very South Park. There is, it turns out, a very South Park explanation: By the time Parker and Stone wrote the line into the script, Buffer had acquired a legal trademark to his famous phrase, and since the show would have to pay him for its use, it just made sense to have him say it himself.
“Tom’s Rhinoplasty” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 2/11/98)
This Valentine’s Day episode features one of very few instances when a guest star was allowed to perform a prominent role: Natasha Henstridge, billed in the opening credits as “The Chick From Species.” It is not my place to suggest that Parker and Stone might have had trouble saying no to attractive women and rock stars they liked, but it may be worth noting that just about the only other performers who’ve been awarded this honor are Jennifer Aniston and Robert Smith. By contrast, Jerry Seinfeld, whose sitcom was still on the air at the time, reportedly expressed an interest in doing the show but turned down the offer to play a turkey in the Thanksgiving episode and deliver the line, “Gobble, gobble.”
Henstridge plays Ms. Ellen, a substitute teacher who’s brought in while Mr. Garrison is on medical leave, having plastic surgery. She threatens to take over the classroom permanently when the operation is such a success that the newly beautified Mr. Garrison decides to pursue a career as a male model. (“Oh boy,” he says during a grueling photo session, “I’m gonna need some more smack.”) The best thing about the episode is the breakthrough method Parker and Stone hit upon to convey the improvement in Mr. Garrison’s appearance: After the bandages come off, a photo of David Hasselhoff at his most “What, me worry?” meathead-studly appears on Mr. Garrison’s shoulders. With that head sitting there atop his cartoon body, Mr. Garrison struts down the street to the accompaniment of the Andy Gibb song “Shadow Dancing.” The technique of defiling an actual photo of whichever real person the show is taking apart limb from limb is one that the show would later apply to everyone from Saddam Hussein to Mel Gibson, and as God is my witness, it never gets old.
It’s pretty much the only thing about this episode that works, though you can make out some potentially workable ideas in there if you squint. Ms. Ellen is a looker, and when the boys gaze upon her, their eyelids get heavy and big, half-moon smiles form on their faces—the same look that was used in the pilot to suggest the effect that Wendy has on Stan, but it didn’t quite fit the tone of the show then, and it hasn’t improved with age. (“You guys are so immature,” Bebe complains. “Act like eight-year-olds.”) The show has already done a lot with the subject of how liking a girl affects little boys; this is the first time it’s really explored the possibility that liking a boy, or rather feeling threatened by someone else who a boy might like better, could do just as much to warp a girl. Wendy is horrified by Stan’s attraction to Ms. Ellen and tries to combat it by such tactics as showing up for class in green eyeshot, reddened cheeks, and black leather. The viewer, meanwhile, is no less horrified by such gags as Cartman licking the carpet in his home, because word has gotten out that Ms. Ellen is, as Chef puts it, “not a member of the heterosexual persuasion,” and Cartman’s mother has told him that if you want to attract a lesbian…
The Ms. Ellen plotline just gets worse and worse, until Iraqi agents burst into the school and carry Ms. Ellen away, claiming that she is a fugitive from Saddam Hussein’s justice. In the classroom scene, Ms. Ellen plays it coy, in a way that leaves the viewer with the impression that the Iraqis have her dead to rights, but in the next scene, in which Ms. Ellen is stuffed into a rocket and fired into the sun, she acts as if she doesn’t understand what’s happening to her or why, and in the last minutes, it’s revealed that the entire denouement was the result of a frame-up arranged by Wendy—an unnecessary one, since Wendy had also arranged to make Mr. Garrison hate his new face so much that he wanted to return to teaching after all. It’s obvious that this ending was a last-minute save that was finalized after the scene of Ms. Ellen being arrested in the classroom had already been put to bed, and it’s easy to understand why Parker and Stone felt the episode needed fixing. Why they ever thought it would improve things and make it funnier if a blameless, frightened woman was executed on orders from Saddam Hussein is something even they might have trouble remembering today.
- There’s an especially bald example of Parker and Stone using their show to settle scores with anyone who they feel has wrongly absconded with their ticket money when Mr. Garrison vomits at the mention of the Jodie Foster movie Contact. For anyone who doesn’t know, Contact was a Hugo-Award-winning major release in the summer of 1997 that would come in handy today if you needed to explain to anyone why Matthew McConaughey used to have more trouble being taken seriously.