Thursday, March 22, 2007

The South Park Appreciation Society

If you want an example of someone taking their TV really, really seriously take a look at Cantor's piece from December analysing the Southpark Episode 'Gnomes'. The entire article is full of funny comparisons between South Park and philosophy from Aristophanes to Smith. My personal favourite section, though, is this one:

"But what about the gnomes, who, after all, give the episode its title? Where do they fit in? I never could understand how the subplot in “Gnomes” related to the main plot until I was lecturing on the episode at a summer institute and my colleague Michael Valdez Moses made a breakthrough that allowed us to put together the episode as a whole. In the subplot, Tweek complains to anybody who will listen that every night at 3:30 a.m. gnomes sneak into his bedroom and steal his underpants. But nobody else can see this remarkable phenomenon happening, not even when the other boys stay up late with Tweek to observe it, not even when the emboldened gnomes start robbing underpants in broad daylight in the mayor’s office. We know two things about these strange beings: they are gnomes and they are normally invisible. Both facts point in the direction of capitalism. As in the phrase “gnomes of Zurich,” which refers to bankers, gnomes are often associated with the world of finance. In the first opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, the gnome Alberich serves as a symbol of the capitalist exploiter – and he forges the Tarnhelm, a cap of invisibility. [10] The idea of invisibility calls to mind Adam Smith’s famous notion of the “invisible hand” that guides the free market. [11]"

This is brilliantly over earnest. Forgive me doing the same for a favourite of mine. To my mind the most important South Park is the double episode 'Cartoon Wars'. If you've never seen it this might be a comprehensive spoiler but won't stop you appreciating the episode's brilliance.

The double episode is itself a part of a sequence of episodes on modern obsessions and the culture of fear. Global warming was the target for two earlier episodes. 'Smug Alert' attacked the self-righteous attitudes of the glitterati, particularly in the entertainment community. Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow mocked the hyperbole of the global warming movement. In both the South Park population went and hid in the community centre which became a metaphor for blind panic. The commitment to political content in South Park allows the show to build up these kinds of memes and make deeper points about a modern aversion to risk without needing to distract from the independent message of each particular show.

Throughout the show Fox is used as a metaphor for Comedy Central and Family Guy as a metaphor for South Park itself. This becomes particularly sophisticated as Cartman is the voice not only for the shows creators in his hatred of Family Guy's comedic style but also the evil voice of the terrorist threat of violence, actual terrorists giving video warnings fulfil the same dual purpose. This is a disarming display of humility and subtly sends the message that even when criticisms of certain artistic and media expression are correct it is still not right to limit freedom of speech.

The show's history is used as an argument against the idea some kind of double standard exists which dictates that it is not alright to mock Jews or other groups but free speech is invoked when people insult Muslims. When Cartman asks Kyle "how would you feel if there was a cartoon that made fun of Jews" the audience is well aware they are watching that cartoon. At the end of the show a fictional terrorist response to Family Guy's insult is shown which treads roughshod over every other fictional American taboo by literally shitting on the flag, Jesus and the President.

The show's message comes across loud and clear. Instead of sticking our heads in the sand, the episode's literal take on the American and British response to the Jyllands-Posten crisis, we need to challenge attempts to clamp down on freedom of expression. It is unacceptable and cowardly to allow a threat of violence to destroy our most important values. Such appeasement creates a vicious cycle as other groups seek to obtain a similar restriction that they not be offended.

There is so much more going on in these episodes and I’ve only covered a small portion of their range. At the same time it manages to stay really, really funny. However, despite the combination of subtle and brutally obvious messages in the show it was life rather than art which made the point most convincingly. At the climax the fictional Fox President decides to screen the image of Muhammad. By contrast, in reality Comedy Central censored South Park’s incredibly gentle portrayal of Muhammad. Just as Muhammad is about to be shown in the fictional Family Guy episode the actual programme cuts to a black screen with simple white text. The danger to our most cherished and important values was clear for all to see when "In this shot, Mohammed hands a football helmet to Family Guy; Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network" replaced such a moderate defiance of the violent threats of our enemies.


joketrump said...

Nice post. "Cartoon Wars" is one of (if not) my favorite South Park episode. My frieds and I were having a debate over the perfect South Park episode to show someone who hasn't seen the show. I decided that "I'm A Little Bit Country" would be a great episode for a variety of reasons (minimal but existent violence, great Cartman parts, currently relevant issue, excellent objective take on the issue). Any thoughts?

joketrump said...

I should note that "minimal but existent violence" would be necessary to gradually expose them to the occasional cartoon gore of the Show so that they wouldn't let it ruin the show for them (which so many people unfortunately let it do) but it would prepare them for future bloodbaths and obscene irreverence.

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