Is there a show that's been more hurt by YouTube and the rise of Internet video than South Park? I mean, remember back in 2000, when the show came up with a response to the Elian Gonzalez thing within a week of it happening, and we were all amazed at the speed with which a TV satire had cooked up an episode based around that news story. Though late night hosts have been doing "timely" jokes since the start of the medium, scripted TV operates at a remove of at least a month, if not longer. That means a show that aims to capture the zeitgeist has to be either very, very good at predicting trends or very, very lucky. South Park, because it was largely the work of two guys, was able to subvert that, to bring a quick and speedy ethos to the world of TV, and its responses to current events became what gave it a second life after the whole early fascination with the show of 1997.
Now, it didn't really matter if you agreed with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on their increasingly incoherent central philosophy of life - which often seemed to boil down to, "The cool thing to do is whatever people don't expect you to do, so just always do that," regardless of whatever issue they were talking about. All that mattered was that they were talking about things like this and doing so quickly and with a certain flair. They always had one or two episodes that didn't try to satirize some aspect of American life, but for the most part, a South Park season was a long string of the show taking the piss out of trends and popular figures.
Now, I have to say that I stopped reliably watching South Park about a year ago, when I realized that the show, while still amusing enough, just didn't hold up like it once did. The series had basically turned into a long string of episodes where Stone and Parker said, "Hey, did you ever notice such and such?" To the show's faithful followers, such and such was still funny enough to invite mockery. To myself, however, it often felt like Stone and Parker weren't pushing the boundaries like they might have, weren't really risking anything to do the show that had given them the pedestal from which to mock whatever they liked. The best satire is both relevant and daring. The rise of Internet video robbed South Park of a bit of its relevance (since YouTubers can react to world events with lightning speed), but Stone and Parker increasingly just made safe jabs at the things they were trying to mock.
So I was not surprised when tonight's episode was basically the hardest hitting satire of 2006. It's actually a full-length version of both this video and this one. I'm not saying that Parker and Stone ripped those videos off. Far from it. But it does seem as though they took a look at a social phenomenon - Facebook - and then mostly made all of the jokes about it that the rest of us did back when Facebook first invaded all of our lives. It doesn't give me high hopes for the inevitable Twitter episode the show does in 2013.
Let's start with the good first, though: I loved the weird little creation of Kip Drordy, the kid with no Facebook friends (or real friends). Everything about his life was over-the-top and silly, but over-the-top and silly is something South Park generally does well, so I had no complaints on that front. I loved that his poster was a sad clown and that he pasted Kyle's face over it. I loved that he had that clock with the sad kitty cat as its face. I loved the stupid little dance he did whenever Kyle would click the "Like" button for one of his statuses or something. This is just a predictable outgrowth of the episode's premise - the idea of a Facebook friend being treated as a REAL friend is all right there, really - but it was executed with a real feel for the ridiculous. I know the show frequently brings back these bit players, and I wouldn't mind seeing Kip turn up again.
I was less enamored of, well, everything else. The final scene at the chat room party Stan's profile threw had its moments (I liked Randy going around and telling everyone his status), but for the most part, this was just a long series of really obvious jokes about Facebook and/or Farmville. You had the realization that Facebook was a giant time suck. You had the parts where Facebook zapped Stan and transported him into a rather weak Tron homage. You had the parts where everyone defriended Kyle because he friended the wrong person (and it strikes me as strange that MS Word doesn't recognize either of those words, but I suppose it wouldn't). Have you at any point in the past four years made a joke about Facebook or Facebook culture? Then it was probably in here, and it was probably executed in its most basic form.
And then you had Cartman starring in a lengthy take on Jim Cramer and Mad Money called Mad Friends. I guess this was a promising idea (at least it was relevant within the last half decade), but the show mostly just botched it by not giving any sense of what the show was like beyond Cartman's ranting or having him specifically single out Kyle more or something like that. It was pretty much just, "Hey, wouldn't it be funny if Cartman hosted Mad Money?" I mean, yeah, but I'd like if the joke went a little farther than that. Otherwise, it gets repetitive and old. I liked some of the visual touches around the edges of this storyline, but it never really did anything amusing enough to justify its existence.
But, then, what turned me away from South Park a while back was that the vast majority of the episodes just sort of fall into that camp. The show, confident in its legacy as a TV legend, has mostly just started doing bland episodes that say, "Did you ever notice this?" and then coast from there. It's like the series - which can still pull out a great episode from time to time and still remains enjoyable enough if you don't think about it too much - has abruptly turned into a hack stand-up comic or, worse, a 44-year-old suburban dad who just doesn't understand what his kids are up to but knows he doesn't like it.
- In case you didn't notice from the length and the general wordiness, I'm not Sean or Josh. Both were busy tonight, and I offered to take on the job. If you're one who bristles at Sean and Josh thinking too hard about the show and what does or doesn't make it funny, you are probably fuming right now, your hand clutching the mouse so tightly that it is about to snap in two. If that's the case, I can only say that they will be back next week, and I'm glad to take your abuse for the time being.
- "Kyle, this is the way the world works. If you wanna find some quality friends, you gotta wade through all the dicks first."