South Park, one of my all time favorite shows. When the first episode aired on August 13th, 1997 I was only 10 years old. The debut was on a small but growing cable channel called Comedy Central. Despite being subscribed to only a small percentage of families in the U.S. back in 1997, the channel was fairly well known due to its cult hits such as Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.
However, it was strong word of mouth back in late 1997 from the increasing popularity of South Park that helped Comedy Central make its breakthrough into the cable scene. With the first basic cable show on a major cable channel to carry the TV-MA rating for mature audiences, South Park began to court controversy and make a name for itself, and Comedy Central.
In going back and re-watching the whole first season in order to write this review, there are several observations I have made that only the passage of time could facilitate. First of all, I am struck by how relevant the subject matter still is today. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done an excellent job staying relevant since 1997. Second, over the course of 19 seasons, you would expect a show to change, and South Park is no exception. But the core of the show remains virtually untouched in 19 years. Hallmarks such as the vulgarity of the jokes simultaneously mixed with a sweet charm, the mocking of well known figures, and the trials and tribulations of the four main characters has never changed. Third graders Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman have navigated the confusing adult world around them for almost twenty years now.
One final observation before I get into my review. The initial airing of the first season was fraught with controversy over its subject matter. Organizations such as the Parents Television Council were consistently critical of the show, and even Comedy Central executives were occasionally at odds with the creators over certain topics and jokes. But in going back and watching the first season almost 19 years later, it seems incredibly tame, not just for South Park, but for cable and even network television in general. To be fair, there are still some jokes written for shock value that still shock, and the skewering of political figures and celebrities is still just as scathing as it was in 1997. But it is amazing to see just how much societal norms have changed in 19 years.
Warning!! Minor spoilers past this point.
Cartman Gets an Anal Probe
The pilot episode served perfectly for what was in store for the viewers going forward. Although this episode was rated poorly by test audiences, Comedy Central executives quickly ordered a second episode before the first one aired. I can't understand why a cartoon about four foul-mouthed, third grade boys including one that gets anally probed by aliens would test bad, but again this was in the world of 1997.
The episode is a brash and profane story about Eric Cartman, one of the four main characters, who is abducted and probed by aliens who seem to be spending a lot of time hovering over the skies of South Park. Also in the story, Kyle Broflovski, another main character, attempts to save his little brother Ike who has also been abducted by aliens.
Low on budget, the creators filmed the animation with a stop-motion technique, and created the characters using paper cutouts. Critics gave mostly negative reviews, particularly focusing on the profanity uttered by the young boys and the lack of warmth and charm in the story.
Weight Gain 4000
Although the third episode to be broadcast, Weight Gain 4000 was actually the second episode to be produced at the request of Comedy Central executives who weren't completely sold by Cartman Gets an Anal Probe. The episode was the first to be created using computers instead of paper cutout stop-motion. The plot includes the local third grade teacher Mr. Garrison planning to assassinate Kathie Lee Gifford when she visits South Park because of his anger towards a childhood incident involving Gifford. A second story involves Cartman becoming extremely obese from muscle mass supplements as he tries to beef up for an upcoming appearance on tv.
The third episode to be produced and the second to be broadcast, Volcano, is a parody of two 1997 volcano disaster movies: Volcano and Dante's Peak. The plot involves the four boys going hunting with adults Jimbo Kern and his Vietnam buddy Ned. Among the topics parodied in the episode include the Duck and Cover nuclear attack educational videos for schoolchildren from the 1950s and 1960s, and television actor Patrick Duffy. The episode also features the first appearance of the creature Scuzzlebutt, who would later become a minor character. My favorite visual joke of the episode depicts the diversion trench for the lava (a la Volcano) ending in Denver, and the ensuing panic of the townspeople running and screaming in complete disarray.
Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride
One of the best episodes of the first season is this fantastic story about Stan's dog Sparky, who appears to be gay, and the South Park third grade football team's attempt to beat the spread against Middle Park, a neighboring school with a formidable football team. The episode tackles (pun intended) the topic of open sexuality, which at the time in 1997 was uncommon to be addressed head on. This episode introduces the character of Big Gay Al, an enigmatic and openly gay resident living outside of South Park whose appearance is implied to be almost mystical in nature. The episode also features George Clooney in a guest role as Sparky the dog. Clooney was a big fan of the show at the time and his only lines include a few barks and yips.
The speed of the jokes, dialogue, and story in general is much faster than previous episodes. The result is a very funny satire that includes many of the hallmarks of future South Park episodes such as ridiculous storylines, social commentary, and offensive jokes. I personally find the final scene with the football game commentators to be the highlight of the episode, along with the sweet friendship between Stan and Sparky. This episode was nominated for an emmy award and a GLAAD award.
An Elephant Makes Love to a Pig
With this episode I will start by saying that I don't really understand it. But I still find it quite funny. The plot involves a creepy and enigmatic geneticist named Dr. Mephesto, who was apparently inspired by Marlon Brando's performance in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Kyle, for whatever reason, has a new pet elephant, and wants to cross-breed it with Cartman's pot-bellied pig in order to win a bet against a couple of his classmates.
The satirical elements with respect to genetic engineering are some of the best bits of the episode, including Mephesto's insistence on genetically engineering every animal that he can get his hands on to have four asses, and to cross-breed inanimate objects such as a beard and a brick of cheese. But the best part of the episode in my opinion is the love song that Chef sings to set the mood for the elephant and pig to make love, which involves a cameo verse by none other than Sir Elton John.
The parents of South Park are up in arms about The Terrance and Phillip Show, the comedic show within a show about two Canadian guys who do nothing but make fart jokes all day long. The parents boycott the show's production company, all the while being so engrossed in ending the production of the show that they begin to lose sight of their children and what is going on in their day to day lives.
The protesting of Terrance Phillip is an obvious allusion to the early criticism aimed at South Park as being little more than a show with silly and offensive jokes. The message being that parents should be more involved with their children and less worried about what's on tv, all the while advocating for free speech and satirizing censorship. This episode also starts a long running joke of Stan's grandfather mistakenly calling Stan "Billy" despite Stan's repeated corrections.
Pinkeye is the first South Park Halloween episode. It begins with a cold open showing the Mir Space Station orbiting above Earth as the cosmonauts onboard send a message to their command center that they are experiencing a problem. This is followed quickly by the four boys standing at the bus stop, and Mir crash landing on top of Kenny. The cold open was the first minute of South Park I ever watched. I was ten and very confused by the humor, but it's humor is not lost on me now and still makes me laugh.
The main plot is a zombie outbreak in the town courtesy of a re-animated Kenny, whose embalming fluid mixes with Worcestershire sauce and apparently brings him back to life (so to speak). The highlight of the episode is a zombie Chef dancing in the style of Michael Jackson's Thriller video. The episode's title comes from the running joke throughout the episode of a doctor continually misdiagnosing zombies as having pinkeye.
This episode introduces the character of Marvin, an Ethiopian child the boys name "Starvin' Marvin". The boys meet Marvin because he is sent to Cartman's house accidentally instead of a sports watch after contributing to an African charity. Eventually Cartman is accidentally sent to Africa in Marvin's place where he stumbles onto Sally Struthers who is in charge of the charity.
There is a scene involving Sally Struthers that made me laugh harder than possibly anything I had ever seen up to that point in my life when I originally watched this episode. The boys become aware of the charity through a commercial that displays gratuitous poverty and starvation of the Ethiopians, depicting them as incredibly rail thin and miserable. All the while there is a female voice speaking offscreen about the Ethiopians plight. The commercial eventually pans past the starving Ethiopians to a comically obese Sally Struthers practically begging for charitable donations. The juxtaposition is cruel and mean-spirited, but still makes me laugh to this day.
Mr Hankey, the Christmas Poo
My pick for the best episode of season 1 goes to this episode. The residents of the town become obsessed with making the Christmas holiday season non-offensive to everyone who is either not Christian or doesn't celebrate Christmas. The solution is a talking piece of poo. To be more precise, Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo. He doesn't represent anything except the concept of a non-denominational, non-religous holiday character. And yes, his character's physical makeup is exactly what his name implies.
The episode features two great songs, my personal favorite being the one Kyle sings about being a lonely Jew on Christmas. There are several great running gags in this episode, but my favorite moment is the third graders performance of a non-offensive Christmas play written by Philip Glass, and the ensuing riot in the audience as the parents bicker over who ruined Christmas by removing religious and traditional imagery.
In this episode, South Park elementary has a new student named Damien. He bears a striking resemblance to the main character from the original 1976 film The Omen. Damien claims his father is "the dark one" and he appears to have evil powers. This isn't one of my favorite episodes, but the climactic boxing match between Jesus and Satan is pretty funny. A couple highlights from the episode include Don King promoting the match, and the boxing announcer introducing Jesus and Satan before the start of the match.
Another episode that's just run of the mill in my opinion is this one about Mr. Garrison getting a nose job that makes him look like David Hasselhoff, and the substitute teacher that takes his place while he recuperates. Natasha Henstridge guest stars as Ms. Ellen, the young, attractive substitute teacher that all the boys in the class fall in love with. There's not really much else to say about this episode. Just watch it for yourself and form your own opinions.
Another great episode from the first season is this one where Barbra Streisand comes to South Park in search of a mystical diamond that has the power to transform her into a gigantic, mechanized creature, similar to Japanese Kaiju creatures. Streisand is parodied pretty hard in this episode, and although I'm not exactly certain of the reason the writers chose to do this, it's still a very funny portrayal. Eventually Sidney Poitier and film critic Leonard Maltin come to help save the day. Both men also have the ability to transform into enormous creatures similar to Gamera and Ultraman respectively.
The highlight of the episode is when Robert Smith, the lead singer of The Cure, shows up and saves the day. Robert Smith is voiced by himself, who was invited to make the episode by the creators who were big fans of his music.
The random Japanese man that sings short, repetitive Japanese lyrics into a microphone every time someone transforms into a creature is still the funniest part of the episode.
Cartman's Mom is a Dirty Slut
All right, we've made it to the end of the first season. The final episode ends with a cliffhanger as Eric Cartman tries to discover who his real father is. The running gag that was established at the beginning of the season that Cartman's mom is very promiscuous is fleshed out here as Cartman discovers there are several (actually more than several) men who could possibly be his father. Several of the men are non-white, which leads Cartman to lose his cultural identity multiple times along the way.
Aside from Cartman's story, the other three boys try to get a video onto America's Stupidest Home Videos, an obvious parody of America's Funniest Home Videos.
That's all I have to say about the incredible first season of South Park. Maybe I will rewatch the season in another decade and write another review.
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