On the one hand, South Park's audacious, irreverent jabs at sacred cows can be thought-provoking, satisfying satire. On the other, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone occasionally go too far, taking mean-spirited potshots just because they can. The seventh season of South Park is typically ambidextrous, but obviously for Parker and Stone, the only question worth asking is "is it funny?"
Hence, we get Christopher Reeve snapping fetus spines, sucking out stem cells and growing ever-stronger. In the same episode, "Krazy Kripples," crippled-from-birth Jimmy resents the attention Reeve commands, and decides to start his own organization for those like him: the Crips. Learning that the Crips already exist, Jimmy and wheelchair-bound compatriot Timmy join the infamous street gang. Even if you can imagine more outrageous subjects for a half-hour sitcom, you'll find that Parker and Stone have broached them.
The seventh season famously garnered publicity from the participation of legendary TV producer Norman Lear (All in the Family); Lear attended a writer's retreat to pitch and help refine ideas. Among the season seven targets are reality TV (suggested by Lear), anti-smoking fanatics (starting with a hilarious spoof of musical school-tour performance troupes), the Iraq war debate, Indian gaming, metrosexuality, then-ubiquitous celebrity couple Ben Affleck and J. Lo, and the Mormon religion.
Parker and Stone riotously hoist the Mormons on their own petards by simply depicting the tenets of the Mormon faith and implying that they're ridiculous (other faiths have gotten similar treatment). The creators see themselves as independent-minded rather than liberal or conservative (the Iraq show, "I'm a Little Bit Country," makes those on both sides of the debate out to be foolish patsies), but when an individual gets under their skins, Parker and Stone take the merciless tack that all's fair in comedy and war.
In "Butt Out," Rob Reiner is depicted as a monstrously obese political bully, without supplying specific ammunition to back up the claim that the anti-smoking movement invents its evidence, and J. Lo and Ben Affleck get eviscerated mostly for being famous. That said, "Fat Butt and Pancake Head" is a triumph of aburdism. Implying that Jennifer Lopez has whored out her ethnicity, Parker and Stone depict Cartman achieving overnight fame by turning J. Lo into a Senor Wences novelty act, complete with a song called "Taco-Flavored Kisses" (including the refrain "taco taco, burrito, burrito"). As Parker and Stone see it, you can't laugh without first dropping your jaw.
Season seven effectively works star-character Cartman's most egregious traits: his selfishness, his shamelessness, and his anti-Semitism, which has by now ballooned into murderous intent for "friend" Kyle. The overweight Cartman represents the worst of American instincts: he's voracious and will go to any lengths to protect his own self-interests. Cartman's excess reaches its peak in the classic episodes "Christian Rock Hard" (in which Cartman creates a Christian rock band just to stick it to Kyle and win a bet) and "Casa Bonita" (in which Cartman abducts and imprisons Butters to steal his slot on a birthday trip to a Mexican theme restaurant).
The Canadian Christmas episode is a limp parody of The Wizard of Oz, "South Park is Gay" devolves instead of focusing its satire, and "Grey Dawn" (about elderly drivers) mostly fails to find humor. But generally even the least clever, most simplistic premises—like turning overage "Hooters" into underage "Raisins"—effectively exploit the prurient situation comedy. Happily, Parker and Stone remember each year to ground the insanity in a grade-school reality, like the impetus for and consequences of "TPing" a teacher's house ("Toilet Paper") or role-play diversions ("Lil' Crime Stoppers").
Since there's still an audience for old-fashioned, corny comedy candy (like most network sitcoms and big-screen comedies), shows like South Park hardly qualify as signs of the Apocalypse. The easily offended should stay far away, but the Comedy Central series keeps it zesty for the rest of us.
South Park collectors will know what to expect from South Park—The Complete Seventh Season. Paramount serves up previews (Dave Atell's Insomniac Tour, Mind of Mencia, Comedy Central Roast of Pamela Anderson, and Ren and Stimpy: The Lost Episodes) and "Quickies" (clips from Mind of Mencia, Drawn Together, and South Park, but only one significant bonus feature. Since it's probably the only bonus feature worth producing at the moment (someday, a behind-the-scenes doc would be nice), fans will be satisfied.
The bonus feature is, of course, a mini-commentary—provided by series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone—on each episode of the seventh season. The duo takes three or four minutes per episode to explain their inspirations and motivations for each plot, with occasional sidetracks and trivia (my guilty fave: the rumor that J. Lo was plagued with squeals of "taco taco" on a movie set after "Fat Butt and Pancake Head" aired). As for the fifteen episodes here, DVD becomes them: the video and audio quality is excellent.
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