I'm an admitted South Park fanatic. After the first episode premiered on Comedy Central in 1997, I wasn't merely hooked - I was obsessed, and that obsession was well known with anyone who knew me. I proudly wore a hat that featured a dead Kenny on the front, and as part of the media club in school, I did movie reviews that featured a 'dead Kenny' rating system on a regular basis. So, I obviously have a pretty large bias in favor of the show, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that I felt South Park only got better with each subsequent season over the years... until the twelfth season came along at least. Although I found Season 12 to be solid overall, it wasn't quite up to snuff with the hilarious standard that South Park is known for. Season 13 came along, and I felt the first half of the season was fairly strong, but the latter half was truly the first time I was ever sorely disappointed with the show. To me, every episode of Season 13's fall run wasn't just bad in comparison to the rest of the series, it was bad television all around. As a result, the 13th season of the show amounted to little more than a turd in the punchbowl, and I was convinced that Trey Parker and Matt Stone had lost 'it'. I steered clear of the 14th season once it started in the spring of 2010, and decided that I might catch up on it one day if I ever found it on sale for a sweet price. Presented with the chance to review it however, I figured now was just as good a time as any. I have to say, I'm glad I didn't write South Park off completely after a bad batch of episodes, because Season 14 brings the show back in a big way.
The first thing that caught my eye while browsing the list of episodes that are included, is that there's a three part series featuring 'Coon and Friends'. My initial reaction? I sighed deeply while shaking my head. Now don't get me wrong - Matt and Trey's take on superheroes in The Coon was very popular amongst South Park fans, and hell, I enjoyed it a great deal myself. After all, my favorite episodes from the series as a whole feature the boys doing what they do best - Just being kids. Dressing up, equipping themselves with an arsenal of toy weapons (and in some cases, even real ones), and getting lost in a world of make believe that's loosely based on whatever fad is currently sweeping the nation. After seeing them do this with Lord of the Rings and anime, having them band together as a bunch of superheroes was the next logical step. In my opinion, the outcome was nothing short of brilliant, but to bring it back for another three episodes? It seemed to me that Matt and Trey had run out of fresh ideas and were merely trying to play it safe by sticking with a fan favorite concept, but to my surprise, the creators delivered on this trio of episodes not only in the laugh department, but by actually delivering an unexpected amount of depth. I won't go into too much detail because I'm not a person that takes pleasure in spoiling things, but I think I can safely say that the identity of Mysterion is finally revealed, and a certain revelation not only sheds some light on a hero's background, but on the series of South Park in its entirety.
Of course, the real meat and potatoes of any season of South Park is the social satire, and there's certainly plenty of that here. Unlike the latter half of the previous season, which failed due in large part to tackling subjects that didn't have a broad enough appeal (backyard wrestling, illegal whaling, disaster films, politically biased commentators, etc.), South Park's 14th go round had more than enough ammunition at its disposal to keep me hooked. Right off the bat, the season begins by ripping on Tiger Woods' claim that his infidelities were the result of a tragic disease known as 'sex addiction'. The opening of this episode, Sexual Healing, is easily one of my favorite South Park scenes of all time, as it shows us how a new version of the Tiger Woods PGA Golf videogame, using the events of the famed Thanksgiving night that Tiger's wife supposedly saved his life by smashing a golf club through his car, might play out like a mash-up of Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat. It was a strong start for the season, and Matt and Trey were apparently only warming up. The remaining 13 episodes dissected medical marijuana laws, the BP oil spill, Facebook, Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Inception, Hoarders, and reality cooking shows. In typical South Park fashion, each point is conveyed in the most outlandish possible way, yet the moral of the story is always based in down-to-earth rationality. The creators of the show have been very successful at exploiting the 'dumb as a collective, smart as an individual' ideology, and it's just as prevalent as ever in this batch of episodes.
But, rationality doesn't always reign supreme. This year, the South Park staff celebrated reaching its 200th episode, and they did so by attempting to pay homage to all of the best moments in the series in the episodes simply titled, 200 and 201. The story arc between these two episodes basically involves every celebrity that South Park has ever offended slapping the (not so) quiet mountain town with a lawsuit. However, they're willing to let bygones be bygones as long as the town can get the enraged celebs something they want - The prophet Muhammad. I won't go into further detail (again, I don't want to spoil anything for you), but a big part of the joke in 200 was to recall the censorship fiasco that plagued the Cartoon Wars episodes a few years ago, so any time that Muhammad was shown in this episode, he was intentionally shown as a black censorship bar that walked around. Meant only to be a joke that reflected on one of the largest controversies in the show's history, Matt and Trey received a threat from a Muslim revolution website, and Comedy Central feared for the safety of its employees. As a result, this time of celebration was turned into another free speech debacle, but Matt and Trey ultimately delivered episode 201 to the network the way they intended it to be seen. This time, in addition to the black censorship bar over Muhammad (which again, was intended), Comedy Central bleeped out the name every time it was said throughout the episode, and furthermore, a lengthy speech delivered at the end of the episode was unnecessarily bleeped out to make it seem like it was some sort of meta-joke, but Matt and Trey wanted their fans to know otherwise and released the following statement (which is presented in this set at the beginning of 201):
"In the 14 years we've been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn't stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn't some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We'll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we'll see what happens to it."
And boy did that set the internet ablaze. People have been tirelessly debating about the network's right to censor something since it infringes on free speech, while others have sort of shrugged it off by saying, "They have a certain amount of liability when it comes to keeping their workers safe. Their hands were tied." Although each side of the debate is valid enough, people have been more concerned lately about South Park's track record of releasing everything on home video uncensored. Even with clarification all across the web from owners of this release, people still seem to be confused if 201 is censored or not, so let me clear things up:
-The black censorship bar remains over Muhammad. This was always the intention of the creators, so this was not something that Comedy Central had to censor.
-Episode 201 is presented the same way as it was on television. The name Muhammad is still bleeped out every time he's mentioned throughout, and the speech made by Kyle (and others) at the end remains a casualty of the censoring that was done by the network.
All the censorship hoopla aside though, there's another thing that's keeping this from being a flawless season overall - Crippled Summer. For me, this is hands down the worst episode of South Park I've ever seen. It kind of plays out like an episode of Intervention, as we see Towelie being confronted by friends that want him to kick his drug habit. A good chunk of the episode takes place at Lake Tardicaca however, in which many of its enrollees (which include Jimmy and Nathan) are portrayed with Looney Tunes type personalities. Another episode that really seemed to fall considerably short of the hilarity that South Park is known for, is Poor and Stupid, which centers around Cartman trying to become as dumb and poverty stricken as possible so he can fulfill his dream to become a NASCAR driver.
All in all, this is still a really solid season. It's unfortunate to know there are people out there who would consider not picking up such a great batch of episodes due to some censorship, but I would urge those people to keep in mind that Matt and Trey have always felt that when it comes to their vision, either all of it should be OK, or none of it should be. In the end, they delivered a product that they were proud of and didn't compromise their vision. It wasn't until after the fact that their work had been altered. For my money's worth, South Park - The Complete 14th Season is still worth every penny.
The episode list is as follows:
-The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs
-Medicinal Fried Chicken
-You Have 0 Friends
-Poor and Stupid
-It's a Jersey Thing
-Coon 2: Hindsight
-Coon vs. Coon and Friends
Presented in a resolution of 1080p via the AVC codec (1.78:1), South Park - The Complete 14th Season is as exceptional as one would expect for an animated show of this sort. The animation is specifically meant to resemble construction paper cutouts, so most of the colors used on-screen at any given moment are as bold as can be. This release represents South Park's color palette with nothing short of magnificence, and if you've never seen the show in high-def because you thought the upgrade would be minimal, the color saturation will speak for itself. Not only that, but the edges are well defined 99.9% of the time (once in a very great while you may spot some aliasing if you've got a good enough eye for it), you'll see little details in the construction paper styling in jackets and hats you may have never seen in standard-def, and black levels and contrast are spot on. The only minor quibble with this release is that there's some very minor banding here and there, but I believe that's more of a source issue than of the encode itself. If you're debating if you should spring for the Blu-ray over the DVD in terms of picture quality, the answer is clear - Go Blu!
South Park isn't a show that's made with a constant surround field in mind, but that doesn't mean it hasn't benefitted from the lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track it was given! Music comes through every inch of the sound field, which is actually important this season for some dramatic effect in the superhero episodes, and the sound effects are closer to pinpoint precision than I thought was possible for the show... and I've seen the previous two seasons on Blu-ray! Take for example the episode Poor and Stupid - Although I'm not a huge fan of this particular entry, once Cartman is tearing it up on the NASCAR track and causing all sorts of havoc, you'll be plenty surprised by how enveloped you might feel. If you needed another reason to talk yourself into buying the Blu-ray over the DVD, the sound is definitely a good one!
Mini Commentaries - As always, Matt and Trey provide a mini commentary with each episode (usually ranges between 2-5 minutes each). Although they're not known for being as in-depth as many of the fans would want, they are highly entertaining and provide enough information to at least provide why each episode was created. For example, you'll learn this time around that the three part 'Coon and Friends' run was only intended to be a single episode, but when it comes to the censored episode, don't expect much - Matt and Trey aren't really allowed to talk about it much, and use an extended bleep throughout most of their mini commentary as sort of a joke.
The first disc also features some Deleted Scenes, whereas the second includes the original The Coon episode, which initially premiered during the 13th season. This may not seem like a big deal to those that already own that particular season, but I think it's pretty bad-ass that I can now watch the entire 'Coon' saga up to this point, on a single disc.
The 14th season of South Park was a welcome treat, especially after watching the abysmal latter half of the 13th season... ugh. But fortunately, the latest batch of episodes included on this 2 disc Blu-ray set got the sour taste out of my mouth, and I would be hard pressed to believe that most other South Park fans would find much to complain about. Yes, there's the censorship issue, and there's a couple of bad-egg episodes in the bunch (Crippled Summer in particular), but the rest of the episodes are definitely strong enough to pick up the slack. It seems to be the norm that the extras on any given South Park set are minimal at best, and this release is no different. However, the video and audio quality is outstanding, to the point where I would even dare someone to walk away unsatisfied with the technical presentation on this release. Highly Recommended.