Wow- "South Park" is now old enough to drive. I remember first hearing about it through a chat site in 1997 that's now long-gone (which I visited on my Sega Saturn NetLink!), with me and a few others asking just what "South Park" was after someone mentioned it. I learned that it was a cartoon on Comedy Central, and since I did not have cable then and still don't (for enough reasons I could fill an entire article with), all I knew for a while was the characters that started showing up on T-shirts and mentions of it on newsgroups and such (I remember someone referring to it as "Charlie Brown on speed.") Pictures online were still pretty rare then, and videos weren't even a possibility.
In early 1998, Rhino started releasing the first few episodes on VHS at a rather low price- since I wouldn't get into DVD for a few months yet, and had long been resigned to stuff like this not coming out on laserdisc, I bought the tape containing the first two episodes and was immediately hooked. The next day I bought the remaining two volumes, and by the time the next VHS volumes were out I had finally surrendered to DVD and as luck would have it Rhino decided to release DVD volumes as well. This was long before the term "binge-watching" had been coined, but from then on I always looked forward to "South Park" DVD releases as it was always the first time I would see the episodes contained on them which I would usually watch in one sitting, wanting more after they were over. The first six DVDs had the episodes in sequence, then a series of six "best-of" discs were released over the next couple years which angered many fans who wanted to keep getting every episode in order. I was a bit annoyed as well but bought them anyways, as I was just happy to get any episodes I could watch without the annoying onscreen Comedy Central logo or commercial interruptions. Eventually full season sets started being released, which I faithfully bought on release date along with a few extra "best-of" releases that still trickled out, even ones containing redundant episodes being an obsessive collector. Starting with Season 12, Blu-Ray discs started being released as well.
Which brings us now to Season 16, comprised of 14 episodes on two discs- "South Park"'s popularity may have already peaked many years ago, but it still has a pretty strong fan base. In my opinion some of the later seasons weren't as laugh-filled as the earlier ones, but I'm sticking with it nevertheless for as long as it keeps going. While it's now possible to watch episodes online, free of screen clutter with little to no commercials and no cable subscription required, I've still preferred to wait for the disc releases and watch each season in large doses. I was a bit concerned for this season's release as the past few were out during the year's first quarter, but better late than never.
So what's changed? Well, we still have the primary characters who are still in 4th grade (they began the series in 3rd but graduated to the 4th during the fourth season of the series and have since stayed there). Series co-creator Trey Parker voices Eric Cartman, the overweight kid who mostly thinks only of himself, and Stan Marsh who most closely resembles a character out of the "Peanuts" series. The other co-creator Matt Stone voices Kyle Broflovski, one of the only Jewish kids in town, and Kenny McCormick, who comes from a low-income family and never fully shows his face, usually hiding it in his orange hood and speaking in a muffled voice that the audience can never understand but everyone in the show seems to. Kenny traditionally was killed in every episode but since the show's seventh season usually survives- in this season he only dies in one episode. Most of the supporting characters we've grown to love remain, although most notably Wendy Testaburger is reduced to a background character here and wheelchair-bound Timmy, who was once a "new" character given a lot of attention, rarely appears here as well. Ironically Stan's grandfather, who in the show's first season wanted to be put out of his misery, is still alive and kicking, or at least alive and confused.
I did notice this season that they seem to have toned down the references to celebrities- plenty still get mocked here (including James Cameron and South Park favorite Ben Affleck), but not in every episode as they seemed to be before. Eric Cartman doesn't seem to be as big a jerk as he has been previously also- he's actually borderline nice sometimes here, but his shining moment this season is getting a mobility scooter through his insurance and then demanding everything around him be modified to accommodate it. Leopold "Butters" Stotch, one of my favorite 'later' characters, is still as funny and naive as ever though.
The animation style has evolved but keeps with the spirit of the pilot episode, which was done with paper cutouts. Every episode since then has been animated via computer, but retaining the paper cutout look via scans of the original elements while allowing appropriate visuals (such as explosions) to appear more sophisticated. It's always been fun to spot new objects created for specific episodes and then re-used subsequently. If you look closely you can see many subtle callbacks to previous episodes as well.
Most of the episodes in this season are winners. The first one here, "Reverse Cowgirl," continues the show's tradition of shameless toilet humor with the government stepping in to regulate bathroom safety. We're even educated on John Harington, credited with the invention of the flush toilet. In "Cash For Gold", shopping channels and their cheap jewelry get a good jab as the town's elderly are tricked into spending their life's savings on it. "Jewpacabra" joins South Park's long list of mythical creatures in an Easter-themed episode, while Cartman later plays Cupid with an ulterior motive in "Cartman Finds Love", complete with a love ballad sung by Cartman himself. "I Should Never Have Gone Ziplining" breaks the show's traditional format, presenting itself as a TV documentary on tragic events- in this case where the kids decide to go ziplining up in the wilderness (a tourist attraction consisting of ropes to ride across) and discover it to be incredibly lame and boring.
"A Nightmare on Face Time" is this year's Halloween episode, and one I was most looking forward to seeing as it involves Stan's father buying the town's Blockbuster store and being shocked when no customers come in. It goes for a parody of The Shining with the Blockbuster store standing in for the deserted hotel. Although they don't take any shots at the reasons why I never liked Blockbuster or my personal theories as to why it's declining now, instead mainly stating that renting DVDs is "as old as Madonna's boobs," (as Stan watches a movie on his iPad) it's still pretty hilarious. (I just wish they would have at least included a reference to VHS.) The 'Play All' option will give you two hours and 36 minutes on each disc, and both of them just flew by with me wanting more- a good sign since I had felt some shows in the previous seasons dragged a bit and watching those discs straight through was somewhat tiresome.
"South Park" has always included profanity in its dialogue, which initially was bleeped out both on cable and the home video releases. It had been said that the show's creators felt that the bleeped profanity was funnier than having it said out-right (and the very first episode certainly illustrates this) but since Season 11 all dialogue has been left uncensored. It's noticeable that since that began, profanity has been used more liberally and in many cases would not make a lot of sense if it had been bleeped.
The 1080p, AVC-encoded video on these discs is on the same level as the previous four Blu-Ray sets, with just the right level of sharpness and small details, such as words printed on signs in the background, easy to see. It's been a definite improvement over the older standard-def episodes which had inconsistent levels of picture quality, though "South Park" was never intended to look "perfect". I did compare the picture quality of some of the online episodes to those on the discs, and while the online video has usually looked very good there was still no contest between that and the Blu-Rays.
Audio is in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, with an option also for 2-channel standard Dolby Digital. The audio quality here is consistent as well, compared to the older episodes which sometimes had excellent stereo effects while others were practically mono. The surrounds aren't used very effectively however, as I mostly noticed only music carrying over into them. The front soundstage however is excellent, with most episodes having only the dialogue in the center channel with the music and sound effects in the left and right, with the occasional panned dialogue as well. (The sound on all of the online episodes I checked from this season was in mono, another straight win for the Blu-Rays.)
English SDH subtitles are included. The Season 3 DVD set was the only one to include French and Spanish dubbed tracks, which were hilarious and I was disappointed that they weren't included on the further seasons.
Extras are pretty light this time around- Disc 1 has about five minutes of deleted scenes from a few episodes, most of them in near-finished form but one only as a storyboard. One of the deleted moments includes an extremely tasteless joke from Jimmy that I'll confess had me laughing out loud.
The "mini-commentaries" from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, which began with the third season's DVD set, continue here where the co-creators talk for an average of five minutes per episode, usually just telling us how they came up with that show's ideas.
The packaging format remains the same from the previous Blu-Ray releases, with a slipcover holding a two-disc "digipak" sleeve with synopses of all episodes and full-color printing on the discs to match the artwork on the cover. Given that many recent releases have skimped on disc printing and packaging, it was good to see this remain consistent.
I've looked forward to every "South Park" disc release since the first ones in 1998, and while this one took longer than usual to be released I'm glad it made it out. Although "South Park" may not be as big as it was years ago and a few episodes haven't been so great, this season shows that Trey Parker and Matt Stone have still "got it" and the show has plenty of life left in it. I had heard them say that they want to try and continue it at least as long as "The Simpsons" continues, and as of this writing their contracts have been extended to a 20th season, so we still have more to look forward to. The 16th season in particular has been the most solid in a while, and first-time viewers should still find it very entertaining although I'd suggest watching at least some of the first season's episodes first in order to truly appreciate the characters.