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Ambition can be friend and enemy to South Park, and sometimes both. The three-part "Imaginationland," which concluded last night, did an excellent job of highlighting some of the show's hugest weaknesses and greatest strengths. Overall, though–even if you hated it, which some of you on the Sarah Silverman blog clearly did–you've got to admit to some respect for a show that's been done on its own terms for so long and still manages to get some laughs. (That's especially true for you who think Sarah Silverman, in her second season, is already delivering diminished returns.)

Anyway, the genius: This whole 90 minutes of television revolved around a bet between Kyle and Cartman. If Cartman can prove that leprechauns exist, Kyle will have to suck his balls. (Should Kyle win the bet, he gets ten bucks.) Even over the course of three shows, some of which dragged like crazy, Cartman's savoring of the possibility was gold. The two even end up in court over it, which felt like the South Park of old.

What didn't feel like the SP of old was the slow-moving, occasionally funny main plot: The jokes within worked, but the actual story–terrorists blow up the gateway between bad imaginary characters and good ones, causing havoc–felt more like an excuse for a nostalgia trip than a good arc. In Family Guy/Robot Chicken style (and I like those shows, so don't start), they trotted out a bunch of recognizable faces from Transformers to Ronald McDonald to Snarf from Thundercats (okay, that one was pretty funny).

The setup did allow for some of the funniest moments in SP's recent history, though, particularly when the evil characters break free and it turns out that the most evil ones ever dreamed up come from Cartman's brain–the Christmas critters. Where the other evil cartoons want to simply pluck Strawberry Shortcake's eye out and then kill her, Cartman's mind-beasts want to find someone with AIDS to urinate in her eye socket. (This is, of course, much funnier when delivered by a smiling squirrel.)

And, back in the real world, when it finally appears that Kyle will have to make good on his end of the bargain and, umm, suck Cartman's balls, the various scenarios that Cartman thinks up–particularly one with him dressed as the pope, and casually dealing with the photographer who will record the event–were pretty amazing. Butters, too, deserves some serious credit for laughs. He's ridiculous.

But then there's always the problem of plot threatening South Park. I won't remember the army scenes, or the dumb reintroduction of Al Gore and his legendary ManBearPig. And I won't care that maybe, possibly, there was supposed to be some sort of lesson learned about using your imagination, or not letting the government fuck with your imagination, or something like that. I'll just remember the Christmas critters, poor Butters, and a bet that fat-ass Cartman both won and lost.


Stray Observations:

— "Kurt Russell was raped by Christmas critters!"

— The council of good imaginary characters included Jesus, the lion from Narnia, Morpheus, Glenda the Good Witch, Zeus, Wonder Woman, Popeye (pretty damn funny), and Luke Skywalker

— "I have dry balls–balls so dry they explode like dust…"

— If "Imaginationland" had been one or maybe 1.5 episodes, it probably would have been the best South Park in years.