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Virginia Heffernen’s view-from-the-top of South Park is equal parts informative and incorrect. To begin with, she says “The Passion of the Jew” (episode 8-03) “proved that the show’s still got it or that it’s made a comeback or that it’s better than ever.” I thought it sucked. But I didn’t know the scenes of Mel jumping around in underwear were from “Lethal Weapon.” I’ve never seen any of the Lethal Weapon movies. I sort of just quote them second-hand, like when I say “DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY!” I think that’s from the second one.

In any case, Heffernen is wrong. South Park has been on a steady upward bend since the third season in 1999 – the season which coincided with the beloved “Bigger, Longer and Uncut” movie. The season opener had the kids joining a choir (which actually sang along to tapes) called “Getting Gay with Kids,” and sent them to the South American rainforest. When the kids nearly die there, the episode turned into a public service demanding the destruction of the rainforest. The rainforest! The season’s pinnacle was episode 3-10, “Chinpokomon,” in which the kids of America get addicted to a familiar Japanese cartoon and game which happens to be subliminally recruiting them to join the Japanese army and bomb Pearl Harbor. This played on all of our latent stereotypes about Japanese (there’s a running gag about the Chinpokomon mastermind and his tiny penis) while bashing a truly hateworthy fad. The season ended with the introduction of South Park’s God – a short, ugly platapus creature. That’s brilliant enough to do without explaining.

The fourth season was another step up, opening with “Cartman’s Silly Hate Crime,” in which the fat kid goes to federal prison for hitting the town’s black kid – Token (!) – with a rock. Since the kids need Cartman to win a sledding competition, they present a commonsense case to the governor on how hate crime legislation is inherently wrong and prejudicial (after all, Cartman just pelted the kid because he’s an asshole). The next episodes saw a serious metamorphosis in the series, as the original character Pip got his own episode (narrated by Malcolm McDowell as “a British person”) and was written off the show. In his place came severely handicapped Timmy, a boy in an electric wheelchair who can only say one word – his own name. Naturally, he joins a metal band that threatens the popularity of Phil Collins (shown clutching an Oscar – he beat South Park’s “Blame Canada” with one of his treacly “Tarzan” songs in 2000). Then it was back to social commentary, as Cartman, seeking mature friends, joins NAMBLA (episode 4-06), holistic medicine nearly kills Stan (4-07), Chef demands the end of South Park’s racist flag (which depicts four white guys hanging a black guy), and Cartman starts a boyband named “Fingerbang.” The season climax, “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell? (410-411) showed the kids taking their parents’ bullshit defense of religion too seriously and becoming a revivalist, Billy Graham-style cult. The season closed with an episode called “The Wacky Molestation Adventure,” which should be self-explanatory.

Season five had higher highs and one very low low – the unfunny 9/11 episode “Osama bin Laden has Farty Pants,” the first attempt (to be copied by “The Passion of the Jew”) where a hated public figure is taken down with homages to old Looney Tunes skits. Beyond that, the series came back into the spotlight when Comedy Central allowed them to use the word “shit” 162 times. Naturally, the kids end up having an adventure where the curse word unleashes an ancient evil and they learn that curses are only funny in moderation. Most of the season’s highlights were more pop-culture friendly than political. “How to Eat With Your Butt” had two parents with butts for faces arriving to find their lost son, who turns out to be – Ben Affleck. “Towelie” was a high point in the show’s insanity, introducing a mascot for towels who was hopelessy addicted to pot (his catch phrase: “You wanna get high?”). Along with “Butters’ very own episode” (dedicated to a pathetic character who temporarily replaced Kenny), this ushered in the show’s meta period. They were very aware that insane, death-defying events were going on around them, but they didn’t care, and they just waited it out. In “Towelie,” the kids are constantly in danger, involved in a war between spies and aliens, but they sort of blow it off and try to get their video game system back. In the Butters episode, when O.J. Simpson, the Ramseys and Gary Condit appear to form a support group for Butters’ mom (who thinks she killed her son, then blamed it on “some Puerto Rican guy”), the episode ends with a speech by one of the repentent characters. Whenever he says that he felt like a “murderer! liar! lying murderer!” the focus cuts to one of those special guest stars. It was a nice companion piece for “Here Comes the Neighborhood,” in which rich black celebrities move into town and the white folks of South Park try to kick them out in vaguely offensive ways … like burning a giant lowercase T on their lawns (“For ‘time to leave!'”)

Season six got no media attention, which was too bad, because it deviated completely from the show’s origins. Kenny, who used to die in every episode, was now just dead. Butters replaced him, badly. The kids hated their new sidekick and made sure he knew so. In the premiere, they dress him up as “Chin-Ball Boy,” who has a scrotum on his chin, and send him to the Maury Povich show in order to win money for being a freak. In “Jared has Aides,” they make him obese in order to run a Subway-style ad campaign for Chinese restaurant “City Work” – he’ll lose weight on their food and become their star. After five episodes (including one in Aspen that becomes a parody of all 80s teen movies, complete with a montage and a song called “We’re Gonna Have a Montage”) they expel Butters from the group and he becomes a “supervillain” (actually just himself with a helmet and cape) called Professor Chaos. Thus begin some cute plays on the actual nature of childhood games and pranks which continue into this season. But they’re not the point of season six. “Jared has Aides” is all based on one homonym – the Subway poster boy admits to the boys that he had aides – assistants – help him lose weight. When he tells this to the world at large, he says “I lost weight because I got aides” – which sounds a lot like he has Acute Immo-Deficiency Syndrome. The following 15 minutes play remorsely on that, as he happily tells his girlfriend she’ll get aides (“When we have kids, they’ll get aides, too!”) and promises to give aides to “every child in the world!” Subsequent episodes deal with Catholic priesthood scandals, wrongheaded political activism (the boys accidentally get involved in a “Free Mumia”-style group), the beginnings of womanhood (“Bebe’s Boobs Destroy Society”), 9/11 cash-ins (“Ladder to Heaven”), John Edward (“The Biggest Douche in the Universe”), and child abduction. But the crowning achievement of the season was “The Death Camp of Tolerance.” When the kids’ teacher Mr. Garrison (now out of the closet) realizes he can sue the school if he gets fired for being gay, he hires a teacher’s assistant named Mr. Slave, paddles him, and inserts a gerbil into his ass. For not accepting this, the kids are sent to “Tolerance Camp” – a forced labor facility bearing a very close resemblence to Auschwitz. While this unfolds, the gerbil – named Lemmiwinks – has a musical, Watership Down-style adventure in the leather man’s intestinal tract. The episode set new standards for televised filth and insanity.

The seventh season never reached these heights, but was probably funnier overall. It began (after Kenny rejoins the group with no explanation for his resurrection) with a multi-faceted sci-fi tribute in which the kids learn Earth was created as a reality show by strangely Jewish alien media moguls. Next, Christopher Reeve regains mobility thanks to fetuses (which he cracks open and drinks like juice boxes) and tries to destroy Gene Hackman. The sublime 100th episode portrayed the debate over the Iraq war as a big concert showdown between Donnie Osmond-style rock ‘n’ roll and Marie Osmond-style country. The rest of the season settled into a pattern of highly succesfuly pop culture and religion parodies, topping it off with the masterpiece “South Park is Gay,” in which the whole town becomes metrosexual before Kyle realizes the men behind it – the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy team – are actually members of a devious subterranean race, The Crab People. There was an amusing pro-smoking episode (which ends with the death of Rob Rainer) and Wizard of Oz-style journey to Canada, but the gay episode is the one people remember.

Basically, this was the show Heffernen shallowly attempted to sum up because she liked the Passion episode. It’s the best thing on TV and has been for a few years now.

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