Just so we're clear from the get go - I'm an avid South Park fan. What I am not however, is someone who will sacrifice his integrity merely for the sake of writing a positive review. That being said, let me begin by recapping how I felt about the last few seasons of the show - Although the 12th season was decent enough in its own right, I wouldn't be honest if I said it lived up to its full potential. Season 13 on the other hand suffered from a severe case of Jekyll and Hyde - The first leg of the season was nothing short of brilliant, but the second leg that aired later that year had been some of the most disappointing television I've had the displeasure of seeing in a while. I was concerned that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were losing their knack, but the 14th season rebounded in a way that I never imagined to be possible. It was a season of risk - two episodes were responsible for bringing the controversy of censorship to public light once again, whereas three other episodes left the typical South Park format behind to further expand on the backgrounds of Mysterion and The Coon. These risks paid off in full and then some. Still though, I was concerned over how the 15th season would play out - Trey and Matt had just finished a grueling effort to get their first musical, The Book of Mormon, up and running on Broadway, and only had a few short weeks before it was time for them to slave away on another batch of South Park episodes. Although they would tell you that they weren't as drained of their creative juices as they imagined they would be, the 15th season once again has the show struggling with mediocrity. Simply put, before sitting down to watch this batch of episodes, I was curious if the comedic duo could strike gold yet again. By the end of the season however, I wasn't really left with an answer, just another question - Has South Park finally overstayed its welcome?
It is now hard to ignore the thread of inconsistency that has woven itself amongst the last few seasons of the show, even as a fan. Now, throughout the entirety of the 15th season, I never really thought any of the episodes were abysmal or anything, but I did notice I wasn't really laughing at South Park the way I used to. There was a snicker here, a chuckle under my breath there, but nothing that made me bust a gut. The even bigger problem was that I couldn't place my finger on why that was. People who have already stopped watching the show some time ago would tell you it's because Matt and Trey's self-imposed one-week production schedule doesn't allow them enough time to make a good story with quality jokes. Others would simply say that they've forgotten what it means to be funny. That's all part of it I suppose, but let's be honest here - South Park never came close to being a piece of Shakespearian art, so I dismissed those claims to search for a better and more logical answer... and I think I've found one.
What has South Park been about since the beginning? A small group of elementary school friends that find themselves in a mess of absurd and over the top situations. Yes, the boys had to deal with a short list of some simple minded ideas that were seemingly plucked from the minds of fourth graders - A Mecha-Godzilla inspired Barbara Streisand, a serial chicken 'lover', a showdown between Satan and Jesus in a Pay-Per-View boxing match, alien abduction, murderous clones run amok... and Canadians. Despite the goofy plots though, it wasn't the situations that the show drew the most laughs from, it was the children. These boys were placed in situations that because of their age, they simply couldn't understand, so when trouble came looking for them they would use a host of drastic and equally ridiculous reactions. They also used a plethora of off-colored remarks that were shocking enough for a bunch of third graders to use so freely that you couldn't help but laugh. With the exception of Cartman of course, the boys had an ignorant innocence about them, which is what ultimately ensured everything they said or did was funny. The fact of the matter was that the four boys - Kyle, Stan, Kenny and Cartman - were the stars of the show... but are they still?
To answer that question we have to backtrack a bit - Matt and Trey were concerned their beloved show was going to get the axe when there was a drastic decline in quality with South Park's second season. As a result, they put everything they had in the South Park movie with the intent of sending the series off with a bang. However, as an added benefit to doing the film, the co-creators were able to sharpen their character interaction and plot building skills which ultimately saved the show. This is a fact that Matt and Trey have shared on more than a few occasions, and although it could come off sounding like they were tooting their own horn, that really couldn't be further from the truth - The proof is in the pudding. The third season of South Park was a vast improvement indeed, and the series continued to improve with each subsequent season. It wasn't long before the co-creators discovered their show would be best served by integrating thick slabs of social satire into the mix, and to this date they've tackled controversial language on television, sex education, terminal diseases, the war on terrorism, the evils of paparazzi, Michael Jackson, the death of small business in America... and Canadians. Each subsequent season of the show made it clear that South Park was transforming into a program that was more or less allowing 'the message' to share the spotlight with the boys, in an effort to remind us just how silly our society as a whole can be at times. This has made the show all the better... until now.
Although the 15th season has plenty of interesting points to make - such as how we never read those silly 'click here if you agree' clauses, how to deal with life when it becomes a little blasé with age, why sharing too many personal details in an open format can be troubling, how the southern border of America shouldn't be seen as a way to classify human beings, as well as flipping the Occupy Wall Street movement upside down to dissect - it's clear that the characters of the show have been overshadowed by 'the message' at this point. Honestly, I never watched the show for whatever issues South Park has played as a microcosm to. Sure, it helped to enhance the show since we were able to relate to whatever hardship fell on the characters, but the show had to ensure our problems in America, or sometimes even across the world, served as the stage for our characters and nothing more. Unfortunately, 'the message' in any given episode has become the puppet master, dancing the characters we know and love lifelessly along throughout each episode. What's even worse is that the characters of South Park are so self aware of how crazy their town is, that they're not even surprised when they're caught in the middle of a big shit-show. Instead, they just kind of say, "Oh no, not again." And allow themselves to be carried throughout the rest of the proceedings. Well, the grown-ups still have a tendency to act like lunatics on the brink of an apocalypse, but the kids have sort of become members of the audience themselves, just watching everything go down while they pinch their nose, close their eyes and shake their head. This creative decision over the years has been nothing short of a tragedy - The innocence these boys once possessed has been robbed from them by the very show they're on, and they acknowledge as much through verbal cues on a regular basis. While Matt and Trey may still present their ideas in a unique and clever way, having the children take a back seat to 'the message' leaves South Park without its primary, most vital ingredient - Humor.
So, back to the original question - Has South Park really overstayed its welcome? I'd like to say no, that Matt and Trey can prove me wrong with another consistently hilarious season, but that would probably require a small miracle. As I said before, the 15th season is still loaded to the brim with clever ideas, it's just not that funny. After 15 years of doing the show, I really think the co-creators are allowing their one-week production schedule to affect the quality of their work - They have to pick an idea by Wednesday or Thursday, commit to it and practically obsess over their chosen concept until that episode airs. As a result, sometimes they're able to come up with pure gold, sometimes they make flops. I know that Matt and Trey are still funny guys, as The Book of Mormon stands as a testament to their talent when time and careful consideration are put into their creations, but South Park doesn't receive that kind of attention. The bottom line is that when I sit down and want to watch some comedy, I want to laugh, but what I got instead while watching South Park's 15th season, was the same feeling I've had while watching The Simpsons for years now - I'm watching the show merely because I've grown to love the characters, watching because the show has become a staple in my life, watching in hope that I might catch a rare episode that captures the hilarity of previous seasons. On occasion I walk away satisfied, but is a program that's patterned after inconsistency worth watching anymore after 15 seasons? As it airs and you have nothing else to watch, perhaps. But as a purchase when there's so much other quality programming you could buy? Not really. Hopefully Matt and Trey stop treating their show like a side-project at some point and allow themselves more time to work on better scripts, but until then, I'm pulling my 'fan' card and trading it in for a 'casual viewer' card instead.
Presented in a resolution of 1080p via the AVC codec (1.78:1), South Park - The Complete 15th Season is as exceptional as one would expect for such a simplistic animated show. 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, such as in jackets and hats, that you may have never seen in standard-def before, 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 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track it was given! Music comes through every inch of the sound field, and the sound effects are closer to pinpoint precision than I ever thought was possible for a show with such a quick production schedule. Dialogue is always crisp and clear, and that's all one could really ask for from South Park. The upgrade from the DVD's audio may not be as clear as the upgrade in the video department, but take it from me - The upgrade is actually quite substantial and if you were to ever go back to standard-def audio, you'd miss the lossless track on this Blu-ray.
-6 Days to Air - The Making of South Park - This is the supplement that pretty much everyone is going to want to see, especially if they didn't catch it when it initially aired on television in a one hour time slot. This is pretty much a down and dirty look at how much of a grueling effort producing a single episode of the show can be, especially considering the show only has 6 days to get written, have voice work done, animated and edited. This does give me a much better appreciation for how much work Matt and Trey put in to this show, especially considering my feeling that they treat South Park more like a side project than anything else, but even this revealing documentary does little to make me think that they're producing this show the right way. Still though, anyone who is a fan or ever was a fan should find this intimate look in South Park's studios to be a positive experience.
-6 Days to Air - Behind 'City Sushi' - This is a 3 and a half minute breakdown of how this particular episode had been made. After watching the incredibly in depth supplement listed above prior to this however, this really isn't even worth the time.
-Mini-Commentaries - I've always appreciated Matt and Trey's approach to doing commentaries - Instead of boring the shit out of us for 30 minutes at a time, they rattle off interesting tidbits about a particular episode for four or five minutes and move right along. These mini-commentaries are usually fun and entertaining as a result, and surprisingly enough, fairly informative to boot... but these mini-commentaries don't really sit as well with me, and actually provide me with a little bit of insight as to why this season may not have won me over. All too often, these guys say, "I think we did that because we didn't really know what else to do," or, "I really can't remember too much about this episode." Considering that this was the last season they worked on, I find it incredible that they are less informative this time around than they've been in quite some time. Although Matt and Trey might not say it, I'm truly beginning to wonder if they are, indeed, beginning to get burned out making this show.
-Deleted Scenes - There are 7 deleted scenes here, clocking in at just over 5 minutes in length. Some have been completely finished whereas others are still in the animatic or storyboard stage of development.
I've always spoken very, very positively about South Park on this site, but I think this season is just about the most hum-drum batch of episodes we've probably ever seen. Yes, South Park - The Complete 15th Season is full of just as many clever ideas as ever, but comedy doesn't have a mutually exclusive relationship with cleverness. Matt and Trey have seemingly lost sight of this over the years, as they've increasingly disposed of the material that used to deliver a bellyful of laughs, and why? So they could escalate their show as a platform for speaking out against the silliness in society. Don't get me wrong, this has worked fairly well for the show up until now, but they've let 'the message' overshadow the characters, and by extension, the comedy of the show. I know everyone won't see eye to eye with me on this, but they must be doing something wrong if I rarely find myself laughing throughout the course of an entire season, right? For an animated comedy series, the show's inability to make me laugh is a deal breaker, and it's for this reason that I merely recommend you rent this release.