Friday, April 29, 2011

It's easy to underestimate South Park. Re: Human CentiPad..

Let's be fair - South Park didn't catapult to fame because of wit or insightful political commentary. It's famous because it's vulgar. It's successful because it's vulgar. Yet the more I look at things like this, the more I find that the traits that enable profit and success aren't always the same traits that make that product important in terms of artistic evolution or creative design. When you think about South Park, you think about little children making potty jokes. And there are so many conservative people who cast judgment right there and refuse to see what else the show has to offer. That's a real shame, because the show, very ironically, has a lot to offer specifically to the kind of audience that's most likely to judge swiftly and turn away in revulsion.

The newest episode, Human Centipad, is an excellent example of what the show has evolved into. The actual quality of the episode, I leave for you to figure out yourself - the internet is full of plenty of people saying it was both the worst and the best episode ever. This is not a show prone to creating audience consensus. But the essential structure of dichotomy is there, clear as ever. We have the almost incomprehensibly vulgar on the one hand, and on the other hand, we have the underlying messages that vulgarity is being used for.

The basic plot is a Human Centipede spoof. That was an amusing movie by my extremely morbid standards, but it was a movie with just one (really creative) gimmick and not much else to drive it. But in so much less running time, South Park manages to take this spoof and make it do so much more than it ever did in the original movie.

The movie had no morals, no lessons beyond 'Sometimes bad things happen to annoying people.' It had horror without depth. South Park transforms that horror into comedy and uses it to propel very real and applicable messages into the viewer's brain. Commentary on the legality and morality of those endlessly long online agreements we all click through blindly. Commentary on the Apple brand, its marketing, the culture around it. Commentary on the nature of the human mind's detritus, of our desperate desire to share our mentally digested hobbies with others, as though they'd want our crap.

South Park and Serial Experiments Lain are nothing alike, but the two meet in agreement in this episode, both saying 'We will all be connected.' The difference is in presentation, but nos so much in message - South Park is a lot more cynical about it, understanding that closer contact to human beings also means inevitable degradation, loss of privacy, loss of control over things we take for granted. And the benefits? We get meaningless information we could often do without. Information that can poison us and typically disgusts us while providing no real nutrition to the mind.

Yet the Human CentiPad monstrosity isn't condemned in episode. Quite the contrary, it's taken as inevitable. At the end, all they can say, nervously, is 'Can't we go a little slower?' None of the issues brought up have any real resolution. They're here, we have to live with them. That's all.

Once you look beyond the vulgarity, there's a lot South Park has to offer, even for conservatives. Maybe even especially for conservatives. Yet the vulgarity itself is also crucial to the show, because it's the fist that pummels these messages into you. So, the next time you start dismissing a piece of art because it has a bit more swearing than you like, or nudity, or something else that's beyond the pale... stop and consider if it might not be using those things for more than just shock value.