And perhaps series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone understood there was a slip in quality, too, because some changes were made to the 17th season. But before discussing that, it's important to note that these guys have done a LOT of work outside of South Park. They debuted their musical, The Book of Mormon - which took them four years to write - at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in 2011, and it's been the sweetheart of Broadway ever since. Couldn't get to New York to see it? No problem. Touring productions have circulated the United States since 2012. Live overseas? West End's The Prince of Wales Theatre has you covered. For everyone else, a feature film is alleged to be in pre-production… which brings us to yet another venture they've undertaken. In 2013, the duo announced plans to create Important Studios, and their plan is to approve projects for film, television AND theater. They also spent a few years working on the video game, South Park: The Stick of Truth. The takeaway here is that these guys are ambitious, and it's difficult to comprehend how after all this, they're still able to crank out 14 episodes of South Park a year. Trey and Matt are only human, after all… they must have been getting burned out, right?
According to them, they never lost their creative juices regardless of what they've chosen to endure, but a New York Times article from 2013 provides some interesting quotes:
"We've been doing it long enough to figure out that content will ride on top of whatever wave comes along," Mr. Stone said. "In our first season, you had to show up on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on the comedy channel to catch the show. Now, I don't even know where or how people watch our show. We sort of don't really care about ratings. It's more important to come up with work that will add to the library in a way that we're proud of and will make people want to watch the show wherever they want to."
For a bit of context, this article reveals the first major change the 17th season would face: It would be a single run of 10 episodes, as opposed to two runs (spring/fall) of 7 and 7.
"Why did we do seven and seven to begin with?" Mr. Stone said. "We just sort of made that up. And we are switching to 10 for the same reason. It just sounded like a good number, and we won't break up the year so we can more easily do other stuff." Later in the article, he reiterates, "Now instead of putting out two albums a year, we are only going to do one, which is more manageable and ensures that it will be something we are proud of. We want to keep South Park going for a long time to come, and given what is going on in television, I don't think it matters as much how many episodes you have."
There's also been some changes/additions to the writing staff, most notable of which being the full-time return of SNL alum Bill Hader. With the changes to schedule and staff, I stopped asking, "Is it over?" Instead, I pondered if this would help to revitalize the series…
Well, the latest offering easily overshadows the last two years. While this doesn't say much - at least from my perspective, considering I absolutely loathed the 15th and 16th seasons - you could imagine my surprise when I found myself roaring through 6 of the 10 episodes on this set. I'm sure the ‘one run and done' schedule kept morale high, but more than that, I think what really helped was that the creative staff were wiser with the topics they chose to skewer. Looking back on the preceding 28 episodes, they tackled a lot of stuff that people tend to ignore or get bored with: Border patrol, swing state ballots, bullying, selfies, growing old, and the list goes on. To be clear, I'm not saying these issues aren't important, just that they're not ‘buzz worthy' enough to gain significant traction in our media. This time around however, South Park features an unstoppable buffet of topical spin: Data breaches, George Zimmerman, Black Friday, Game of Thrones, console wars, The Hobbit, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West… this is the stuff people paid attention to in 2013, and I'm glad the writers were more mindful of that this time. When the audience has an interest in the subject matter, it makes any given episode that much more accessible, which in turn ramps up the laughs.
For example, Cartman is concerned about the government spying on his social media accounts, and a thorough investigation leads to truths so shocking, he decides to spread this revelation to the world through an app called Shitter. The end result? He has to seek asylum in Russia, of course. Cartman-centric episodes are something I always look forward to, and seeing him in the satirical shoes of Edward Snowden is pure comedic gold. Of course, Cartman's always funnier when he's at odds with Kyle, and one episode takes their battle to a side-splitting extreme: When the entire globe sees fit to come together in the name of peace, they, of course, keep fighting. A season of South Park wouldn't feel complete without annihilating an obnoxious Hollywood couple, and that itch is scratched when Kanye West spends a fair chunk of the season finale convincing people his wife, Kim Kardashian, isn't a hobbit.
But let's be honest, the most memorable episodes are when the kids are being kids; dressing up as characters from Lord of the Rings or some obscure anime, tasked with an epic yet equally ridiculous plot. This fan-favorite aspect of the show returns in what I consider to be the best three episodes of the season: Black Friday, A Song of Ass and Fire, and Titties and Dragons (otherwise known as The Black Friday Trilogy). The children of South Park are dying to get their hands on a next-gen console, but they're expensive and generally out of stock… but Cartman has an idea. With the craziest shopping day of the year upon them, the consoles are sure to be in stock, and at a discounted price at that. If they band together, they should be able to force their way to the front line when the shopping mall doors open at 5am. Of course, they begin to bicker over which console is superior: "Stan, the PS4 doesn't have the seamless transition between games, movies and TV offered by Xbox One!" So, they split into two separate factions and the rest of the plot plays out like Game of Thrones. I'm a bit biased towards these episodes however, as I'm a gamer and pay close attention to - and write about - industry news. So, take what I say with a grain of salt, but these episodes have been echoed as fan favorites for the year.
The remaining few episodes aren't bad, but they left me more with that ‘smirk here, chuckle there' routine. Taming Strange - an episode where Ike hits puberty and tries to ‘get it in' with a beloved character on children's programming - has some decent ideas, but never really goes anywhere. The concept's a little too strange, even for South Park, and seemed like an excuse to work in a ‘Miley Cyrus grinding at the VMA's' joke, which fell flat anyway. An entire episode is devoted to the Goth kids, and while they're a humorous take on the ‘so non-conformist we've become conformist' cliques, I just don't find them all that compelling to watch. Last but not least, Informative Murder Porn reverses the role of parental locks on entertainment devices: The town's parents are obsessed with an Investigation Discovery-esque show, but when a report reveals such programming can lead to parents murdering each other, the kids step in and… it all somehow leads to Minecraft. World War Zimmerman had potential, but more or less relies on the same joke throughout.
Season 17 doesn't come near the quality of the program in its prime, but does provide a glimmer of hope in the respect that this series - with its truncated schedule - can continue to be funny and relevant. I'm not willing to tout this as ‘the return of South Park', but one thing's for certain: For the first time in years, I'm actually excited to tune in to a season premiere (September 24th). If this season of the show is any indication, we should be in for a real treat.
Presented in a resolution of 1080p via the AVC codec (1.78:1), South Park - The Complete 17th 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.
-Deleted Scenes - Taken from five episodes, there's about 5 minutes worth of content here. I've always like the inclusion of deleted scenes on home video releases, but stuff that's left on the cutting room floor is best left there. These scenes don't really provide a great deal of laughs, nor would they have added anything to any of their respective episodes, which are Let Go Let Gov, World War Zimmerman, Goth Kids 3: Dawn of the Posers, Ginger Cow and A Song of Ass and Fire.
-#SocialCommentary - Comments pop up on the screen during each episode, and are made to resemble tweets… or twits, or what have you. Why? There's an episode where Cartman uses the app Shitter… so we have pleasure of reading his sheets… or shits, or what have you…
-Mini Commentaries - I've always appreciated Matt and Trey's approach to commentaries - Instead of boring the shit out of us for 30 minutes or so, they rattle off interesting tidbits for a few minutes per episode and move right along. It may not sound like much, but these Mini Commentaries are fun, light and most of all informative. My personal recommendation with this season is to wait until you're done watching all 10 episodes, because there was a time or two where these guys jump ahead and spoiled a future plot point or two for me (especially in regards to the Black Friday Trilogy).
I was ready to walk away from South Park for good. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made it clear that more than money or fame, their primary concern is the quality of the content they leave behind, yet I was hardly entertained. I was practically convinced this was PR banter or they were lying to themselves, because the series has been inconsistent for the last few years, at the very least. Fortunately, The Complete 17th Season has proven these guys still have plenty of gas left in the tank, and has made me excited for the upcoming season. Everything you could possibly want is here: Social and political satire, the humiliation of obnoxious Hollywood celebrities, and best of all, the kids dressing up in their adventure garb and starting a multi-angled war, Game of Thrones style. If you've been disappointed with the show as of late, this season is the perfect place to jump back in. To sweeten the pot, the A/V presentation on this release is stellar, and while the supplements are light, Matt and Trey's mini-commentaries are always worth a listen. Highly Recommended.