Our reviews of Christmas Time In South Park (published November 28th, 2007), South Park: The Complete First Season (published April 7th, 2003), South Park: The Complete Second Season (published March 8th, 2004), South Park: The Complete Fourth Season (published July 19th, 2004), South Park: The Complete Fifth Season (published February 23rd, 2005), South Park: The Complete Sixth Season (published October 11th, 2005), South Park: The Complete Seventh Season (published March 21st, 2006), South Park: The Complete Eighth Season (published August 29th, 2006), South Park: The Complete Ninth Season (published February 28th, 2007), South Park: The Complete Tenth Season (published August 21st, 2007), South Park: The Complete Eleventh Season (published August 12th, 2008), South Park: The Complete Fourteenth Season (Blu-ray) (published May 1st, 2011), South Park: The Complete Fifteenth Season (Blu-ray) (published March 23rd, 2012), South Park: A Little Box Of Butters (published October 13th, 2010), South Park: Imaginationland (published March 24th, 2008), South Park: The Complete Twelfth Season (published March 9th, 2009), South Park: The Complete Twelfth Season (Blu-Ray) (published March 10th, 2009), South Park: The Cult Of Cartman: Revelations (published October 1st, 2008), South Park: The Hits, Volume 1 (published November 8th, 2006), South Park: The Passion Of The Jew (published September 13th, 2004), South Park, Volume 2 (published January 21st, 2000), and South Park, Volume 5 (published January 21st, 2000) are also available.
Dirp! Dirpy Dirpy Dirpy! DIRP!
To paraphrase Nietzsche, or more accurately, to mangle one of his many Germanic gerrymanders, sometimes when you push the envelope, the envelope pushes back. When the second season of Comedy Central's breakout cartoon show finished up, it had created quite a stir. Some fans were pissed off (instead of resolving the issue of Cartman's dad at the beginning, as how most cliffhangers are dealt with, the brave boys offered an entire episode of the flatulent Canadians Terrance and Phillip), the establishment was overreacting and those coming late to the perverted party were just plain confused (Spookyvision? Underpants Gnomes?). For South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the infinite sky had perhaps become a limit. They learned week by week that not every attempt at social satire, occasionally based on their own set of inside jokes, worked as subversion. They even resorted to a clip show (though a decidedly daffy example of such) to hold the audience at bay. Season Three was the "make or break" series for the show: either something new and exciting was going to emerge, or all the previous efforts were going to choke to death on too many celebrity guest appearances and dick jokes. Obviously, something went right, because South Park is in its seventh series, the wit is as razor sharp and satisfying as ever, and the overall phenomenon has settled into a pointed and sometimes profound pop culture commentary. It was Season Three, now available on DVD, that turned the corner for the show. But the real question is, is it any good?
Facts of the Case
Kyle, Kenny, Stan, and Cartman are still roaming the snowbound boondocks of South Park, Colorado sticking their invisible noses into everyone's business. Stan is still a wuss, vomiting over the merest mention of Wendy Testaburger. Kenny is still dying at the drop of a hat, or an airplane. Cartman is still a loudmouthed, abrasive bully, maintaining his big-boned girth nicely. And Kyle is still a Jew. During Season Three, they occasionally travel outside their rural Rocky Mountain vistas and have an opportunity to interact with people of different cultures, ideals, and odors. The episodic hijinks the boys get into are:
"Tweek vs. Craig"
"Sexual Harassment Panda"
"Two Guys Naked in a Hot Tub"
"Korn's Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery"
"Hooked on Monkey Fonics"
"Starvin' Marvin in Space"
"The Red Badge of Gayness"
"Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics"
"Are You There God? It's Me, Jesus"
"Worldwide Recorder Concert"
How a successful show handles the telltale turning point in its run says a lot about the people who created it and the imagination involved. Sometimes, when the hurdle of evolution looms, the creators jump the gun and mangle what was once novel into something befuddling and destined to die. No matter how "stupid" some studio executives think the American viewing public is, the average TV-ite understands implicitly when a once beloved favorite is about to go belly up under its own stillborn stupidity. Then there are those that overestimate the need for change and completely jump the gun, fearing their popular product is about to start floundering before it even had a chance to shine. In these pathetic attempts at pandering, characters have unexpected babies, polar opposites piss on common sense and get married, and long lost relatives return from four year long treks with the Peace Corps, bringing along their flatulent, potty mouthed grandparent for the funhouse ride. So how a series gets over the hump without jumping the shark or frisking the beaver is one of the great media mysteries of our time. When they are successful, they have a chance at becoming part of the lexicon of classic and near-classic fare. When they fail, they are destined to be dismissed and second-guessed amongst the once hopelessly devoted.
Generally, Season Three of South Park resembles (in no subtle terms) the life and mindset being experienced by its creators during its creation. At this point in the series' run, the show had turned into a massive and established hit. Paramount had green-lit a major motion picture and superstar celebrity status was chasing Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They had starred in a promised summer blockbuster, Baseketball (which tanked), were present at all the Tinseltown talent rodeos, and had carte blanche to take the show anywhere they wanted. But there was little temporal room for expansion and exploration. Indeed, the majority of the episodes for Season Three were forged under such extreme time pressures (make new installments, finish up South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut—the feature film—and continuously address the ever present spotlight) that one senses the "who gives a shit" attitude that prevailed. So in some ways, it is a miracle that the series survived this turmoil of talent versus time. But then again, this is South Park we are talking about, the second-greatest animated program (after The Simpsons) in recent history. If anyone could pull it off, it would definitely be the dynamic and dangerous duo of Parker and Stone.
In their mini-commentaries (or as they call them, "commentary-minis") on the Season Three box set, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone confess that they knew this was the point in the show's history where it needed to "turn the corner," where it had to go from being a chore to a blast and something they personally enjoyed doing. And even with all the ridiculous temporal restraints and outlandish demands, they are incredibly happy with Season Three. For them, it is when the series "got good." Perhaps it's easier to look at it this way: Season Three is when South Park stopped worrying who it was going to offend, whether or not the plots made linear sense, or how the characters interacted with each other and just went with the fever dream flow. Season Three is where outrageous experimentation overruled sitcom regulation, where a trilogy of shows could be based around a meteor shower and a talking turd could have his own Christmas special. Such past button pushers as Terrance and Phillip and Conjoined Fetus Lady were gone. In their place came outlandish flights of surrealistic stupefaction from the flash fried brain of Trey Parker. Season Three may have even been the point in the show where you, its audience, was either hooked or insulted. It is a season with outer space beings from the planet Marklar; God as a hairy hippopotamus; monkey phonics; the most pointless and irritating character in the history of South Park, the Jakovasaur (that it, until Towely comes along…); and an increasing sense of social irony that had still not hit full blossom.
Indeed, when looking at the first set of shows on Disc One, you can see Parker still has some political fish in his frying pan to flambé. "Rainforest Schmainforest" is a hilarious take on Up with People, ecological activists, and foreign cultures (Cartman saying Costa Rica smells like "ass" is the beginning of this big-boned bozo's priceless moments). It even has a nice vocal turn by Friend Jennifer Aniston. "Sexual Harassment Panda" puts yet another nail in the coffin of our national hysteria over the mostly imaginary menace of gender politics. And the mighty George Lucas gets his ILM handed to him as "Jakovasaurs" shows that Jar-Jar may have been a leap in technological number crunching, but he was still the most annoying creature in the history of creativity. That leaves three rather mundane episodes to round off the disc, and of the three, "Craig vs. Tweek" shows the new direction Parker and Stone were exploring. There is live action flashback material in this episode (a doomed love affair between the animated shop teacher and his human pilot girlfriend), and the whole dream sequence dynamic functions to lift the entire show out of the "will they or won't they" fight foolishness. Similarly, "Succubus" is just another anti-girlfriend excuse to throw in an arcane song reference (this time it's "The Morning After…".and it's sung backwards), while "Spontaneous Combustion" is just one fart joke taken to a dizzying extreme.
It's not until Disc Two then that we begin to get the full effect of Parker's sleep deprived delirium with "Cat Orgy." It starts off the DVD (and the Meteor Shower Trilogy) in very fine form. There is nothing funnier than Cartman in full Wild, Wild West mode (including gratuitous rap) screaming at his horny cat. Add Stan's sister Shelley dating a 22-year old pervert and all the feline fornication, and you can sense the boundaries of good taste dropping. Of the other two trilogy installments, "Jewbilee" is the best, as it mixes old pop culture references (Tron, Cub Scouts) with ancient Hebrew mythology to mine its mirth. "Two Guys Naked in a Hot Tub" is less successful, partly because it has two targets (homophobia and the FBI's treatment of cults) that rarely mesh, and partly because the envelope is not really pushed here, just tormented a little. Thankfully, the final three episodes are some of the best of the entire series (and this DVD package). Korn's appearance in the Halloween show is expertly handled, as is the whole Hanna-Barbera animation send-up. "Hooked on Monkey Fonics" has a wonderful title (is the chimp not the champ of comedy?) and blends home schooling, peer pressure, and bullying with a recreation of the classic "kiss" scene from Star Trek's "The Gamesters of Triskelion" to perfectly make its point about children's need to socially interact with one another.
This just leaves "Chinpokomon," perhaps the most devastating parody of the seemingly endless pop culture craziness of forced Japan fads, almost all based on completely half-assed kid's shows. Beginning with the title (which translates roughly as "little penis monsters") and moving through awkward, amateur anime, video games that cause seizures, and parental confusion over what their kids see in the little crappy toys, the episode smacks of too much truth and contains many moments of ultra-high comedy. Especially effective is the Pokémon jabs, complete with lame names and even dumber sounding super powers. This particular episode is why South Park is sometimes begrudgingly called genius, even amongst those who consider it a peek inside the Antichrist's subconscious. It proves that, on occasion, Parker can take the envelope, fill it full of outrageous sentiments and blatant stereotyping, mix in a whole lot of social realities, and filter it through his own sense of tasteless humor and end up with yet another brilliant installment of his show. "Chinpokomon" was even nominated for an Emmy (it lost, of course), but its impact can still be felt every time an episode of any Japanese animated advertising crosses the screen. You can just never look at Pikachu or Ash the same way after seeing South Park's delightful deconstruction.
Disc Three continues the greatness with "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Special" and "The Worldwide Recorder Festival." Not many people mention it, but as well as being a brilliant comic mind, Parker is a gifted songwriter. The score for Bigger, Longer and Uncut deserved more than just a token nod at Oscar time and South Park itself is filled to bursting with memorable music (from Chef's funky advice to hilarious holiday laments). And just as Season One gave us our first whiff of Mr. Hankey (as well as a handful of classic Christmas songs), Season Three gives the talking stool his own special, and again it features several new songs written by Parker and Hollywood mainstay Marc Shaiman. With an occasional live action insert from a reporter stating that he will help you to "fight the frizzies" (another George Lucas/Star Wars zing…look it up), Mr. Hankey introduces sequences of the boys singing about the Jewish game Dreidel, Hitler lamenting that there are no Christmas trees in Hell, and Satan serenading us about how to celebrate the holidays amongst everlasting damnation. More than just an ad for the simultaneously released CD containing the special's songs (and several others), it's a cryptic X-mas experience and another shining example of Parker's prowess as a comic mind and a composer. Similarly, "The Worldwide Recorder Festival" uses music as the background for hilarious toilet and poop humor, a couple of mainstays in the South Park canon. The fact that they still can mine laughter out of feces means that, when it comes to comedy, these boys know bowels.
That leaves three final episodes, and this is where the disc gets dicey. "The Red Badge of Gayness," about Cartman leading a group of rebel Civil War recreationists on a "South will Rise Again" march, has its moments, but too much of the humor is lost in the rather ridiculous rationale as to why responsible adults would agree to follow a ten year old into ersatz battle (the "I was drunk" excuse just doesn't work). Similarly, the Marklar moments of "Starvin Marvin in Space" don't really ridicule anything specific. It's merely a hook joke, the kind of repetitive riff said over and over again in hopes you will eventually find it funny. The Sally Struthers/Jabba the Hut subplot works much better, and the idea that aliens are about the only people who can help the hungry in Africa is well observed. But aside from this, the little bush baby's journey to another planet is just bizarre. That just leaves the millennium episode "Are You There God? It's Me, Jesus." Frankly, not much about this installment works. Unless you think Rod Stewart (must be another member of the Parker/Stone "most hated celebrity" club) looking like a wrinkled raisin and repeating ad nauseum that he "pooped his pants" is clever, you'll probably find this to be a rather flat twenty minutes. Granted, the boys bleeding out their butts and believing they have their period is funny for a moment, but the whole tampon/hormones angle takes it too far without being that funny. Thankfully, the "Recorder" episode ended this season. Otherwise, the sour taste of this year 2000 tedium would have lingered far too long.
It makes perfect sense now why Season Four saw the introduction of the wheelchaired wacko Timmy, various musical ideas, the fourth grade, new teacher Ms. Choksondik, and another stab at molestation/pedophilia humor. It's as if Season Three started a movement that Season Four had to continue in order for the show to reach its final goal. More experiments and reconfiguring needed to occur before the out and out genius of Seasons Five through Seven could be experienced (over the last couple of years, Parker and Stone have really been on a roll). So take Season Three for what it is: a flawed but always funny, fractured variation on classic South Park anarchy. You may find moments of great joy and instances of unbalanced banality, but what is constant is that, unlike most television, creators Parker and Stone wanted to test themselves, to throw out the rulebook and make the show better and more enjoyable for them to produce. They can be excused for tinkering and testing. As long as the result is more Cartman, more doodie jokes, and more sharp social commentary, they can fidget all they want.
Speaking of commentary, the sole bonus on this DVD set is those aforementioned "mini" narratives by the boys. Some last seven to eight minutes. Others clock in at around five. All are excellent, but they also beg a question. Parker and Stone both say that they opted for this style of alternative audio track because they can't stand listening to idiots yammer about their movie/show/life for 30 to 90 DVD minutes. Well, first off, the episode's here run about 23 minutes, but that's beside the point. Secondly, Parker and Stone are so funny and engaging that even if they mumbled like incoherent stooges for the remaining time, they'd still be massively entertaining. This self-imposed restriction therefore leaves us wanting much, much more even as it offers some incredibly entertaining and substantial tidbits. Parker briefly addresses the suicide of cast member Mary Kay Bergman and how it impacted him personally and the show. Stone admits to basing several characters on real life people (including a couple of mentions that get bleeped for apparently legal reasons), and both bad mouth Season Two mercilessly. So while it would have been nice to have them around to explain and illuminate aspects of each installment that occur after the first ten minutes, overall, commentary-mini is a decent attempt at giving both fans and the fellows themselves what they want.
Comedy Central gives the South Park: The Complete Third Season DVD a pleasant sound and vision package. Each episode is pristine in its 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the sound is sharp and clear. Dividing up just 17 installments on three discs means that image quality is assured and colors are bright and bountiful. Even the live action material looks good on this collection. The Dolby Digital Stereo also sounds solid, especially during the musical moments. While it would have been nice to flesh out the extras with something other than brief moments for Comedy Central shows, we can at least be thankful for the micro-comments and a stellar transfer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Commentary-minis, as Parker and Stone refer to it, is one lame ass name for a semi-successful process. While full-length narratives would or could have been more fun (who knows, maybe their dislike of long discussions would have tainted these tracks) one thing is for sure—that name has to go. So let's give the guys a couple of alternatives to chew on. In keeping with their style of humor, how about calling them "little dic-tations," or "semi-erect stories." If they'd prefer not to peruse the genital angle, maybe going back to the bowl would help. They could call their comments "unflushed feelings" or "butt nuggets of knowledge." Maybe avoiding the whole sophomoric route would help find a more clever and witty means of labeling their talking out loud efforts. How about Micrommentary? Or Minimusings? Anything sounds better than merely sticking two awkward words together. A new name might give these less than complete observations the boost of respectability they need. Parker and Stone are engaging to listen to. The name they take for the short series stories should be equally so.
After the absolute genius of Bigger, Longer and Uncut, it obviously took Trey Parker and Matt Stone a few months to regain their series legs. But it didn't take that long. In fact, they soon became so sure of their skills that they attempted to branch out into live action sitcom land. 2001 saw That's My Bush make a huge initial splash. But soon after, fans were calling for the duo's domes (many apparently didn't get that it was a show making fun of TV, not the President). The series quickly faded and, once again, the gang at South Park became the main focus. Currently, the show is in Season Seven (going on Eight) and it is still as fresh and funny as ever. Even many of the lessons learned in Season Three are still evident. Music is always funny—therefore why not a Christian Rock installment (Cartman forms Faith + 1). Gay is also funny—therefore why not jump on and all over the metrosexual bandwagon (and attack Queer Eye for the Straight Guy at the same time). And nothing can compete with sex, unless it's foisted upon little underdeveloped ten-year-old girls who work, Hooters-style, at the aptly named children's restaurant called…Raisins. Seasons before, the boys had pushed the envelope, broke down the barriers, exposed hypocrisy, and learned valuable, series altering education from it. Season Three showed that, if and when the envelope pushed back, something positive could come out of it. And it did. South Park has only gotten better as a result of what Season Three taught Parker and Stone. Though imperfect, it is still a stroke of semi-genius.
South Park: The Complete Third Season is hereby acquitted on all charges. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are also found not guilty of tampering with near-perfection. Comedy Central is sentenced to 30 days in DVD Extras Re-Education Camp for failing to provide more than a smattering of bonus material.
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