Television as a Social Commentary
South Park is one of the most controversial television shows, an animation tackling current events, social and political issues all through the eyes of 4th graders.
Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone for the Comedy Central television network, South Park looks at the world through the eyes of Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, Kenny McCormick, and Eric Cartman. Stan and Kyle are best friend and are essentially the straight men of the show. Kenny is the token poor kid, coming from a lower class family and dies in nearly every episode in the first five seasons, returning the next episode with little or no explanation. Cartman is crude, loud, obnoxious, and racist. For the first three seasons, the boys were in third grade. In season 4, they moved up to 4th grade where they have remained ever since. The gangs favorite words are fag, douche, and various other curse words.
South Park is currently in it’s 13th season, with 195 episodes since 1997 and has already been contracted to produce 14 episodes in 2011. The show can be summed up by Cartman’s personality; crude, loud, obnoxious, and racist. South Park tackles political and social issues, always poking fun of both sides, portraying the subject of the week with mockery and satire. How do they get away with so much?
The original animation was created by animating construction paper cutouts with stop motion animation. With this technique, the pilot took 3 months to complete. Now, with computer animation emulating the original hand-drawn graphics, an episode can be completed in 1 week, allowing the show to keep up to date on all the latest socio-political issues. Though they have switched to a higher technology with a computerized television show, they have preserved the original simplicity of characters and landscapes composed of basic geometric shapes and primary colors, giving the audience the same cheap cutout look that has been there from the beginning.
Being a cartoon that is cheap and quick to make, the writers have much leeway with what they can make the characters do. Because it is a cartoon, a trip to space or to the past or to the future is not out of the question and can be accepted as believable. Anything is believable; nothing need be questioned as to whether or not it is realistic. Reality is shaped in a different way, through humor poking fun at current events utilizing over the top humor to the extreme.
Let’s look at a few examples of how humor has been used effectively to boost the show from a group of fowl-mouthed children to a social commentary.
- Britney’s New Look
An episode in which Britney Spears is driven to the point of insanity where she takes her own life. Funny, but haunting. The episode is a comment on celebrity, if you will. First Britney is pushed by the paparazzi to shoot herself in the head, except she fails and ends up walking around with half a head. The paparazzi still pushes despite her fragile state and soon everyone in South Park surrounds her in a field with their cameras, snapping photos of her until she drops dead. Then, they are satisfied and finally leave her alone. While it is a bit of a stretch, a bit gruesome, to portray a celebrity with half a head spewing blood brain remnants, it’s not such a far cry from the truth that we push celebrities, and people in general, to a point so far that there is ultimately nowhere for them to go.
- Douche and Terd
“Douche and Terd” came out during the 2008 elections, making a laugh of the Vote or Die campaign. The episode revolves around school mascots and the need for children to vote for a mascot.. Their choices? A douche or a terd. Kyle is shunned from the community because he doesn’t think it matters whether the mascot is a douche or a terd and is kidnapped by Peta. The episode kind of encapsulates the absurdity of the campaign to vote for someone even if you don’t feel stronger either way.
The “Wallmart” episode documents the Wal-mart craze and the irony of people hating it so much, yet shopping there anyways. Ultimately, the only thing they can do to get away from Walmart’s discounts and low prices is to destroy the “heart of Wallmart, which happens to be a mirror, reflecting the thing that actually needs to be destroyed as the consumer. And then they burn it down…
With simple yet outrageous stories, South Park has this way about it that makes you laugh and makes you think at the same time. The controversy surrounding it revolves mainly around the notion of fourth graders being so foul-mouthed and crude, which the show addresses with The Terrance and Philip show, a controversial show within a controversial show that the South Park kids become enthralled with and the adults see as nothing more than a show about a group of foul-mouthed children.