Though usually associated with harmless warm fuzzies for years past, nostalgia has a dark history. It's now socially acceptable for anyone and everyone to long for "the good old days" that probably never existed and, if left unchecked, such thoughts can (and often do) prevent us from fully appreciating the present. So, like Krispy Kremes, Cap'n Crunch, and red meat, nostalgia is fairly safe in moderation...but you're probably better off avoiding it entirely.
During its 20th season (!), Trey Parker and Matt Stone's massively popular South Park tackles the danger of nostalgia head-on---not to mention internet trolling, the 2017 Presidential election, and more---while attempting to build on the experimental serialized format that worked so brilliantly last year. It's an attempt that almost works as well: a handful of high points are still reached, but it mostly feels undercooked and doesn't warrant the ten-episode "movie" format made popular by shows like Game of Thrones and Fargo. The most unexpected but satisfying target (nostalgia) sadly takes a distant second, while the least satisfying (internet trolls) is given a bigger spotlight than it deserves. Even at just 22 minutes per episode, this season's focus feels out of alignment after the halfway mark.
That's what Parker and Stone get for doing work in advance, apparently. Known for their
procrastination lightning-fast turnaround time (just six days per episode in most cases, which allows South Park to always have its finger on the pulse of American culture), the duo nonetheless attempted to map out Season 20 partially in advance. The problem was that one of its major plot points---a certain election last November---turned out a little differently than expected, resulting in a series of Hail Mary rewrites that, to their credit, didn't turn out to be complete disasters.
But there's no doubt these seams show during the back half of Season 20, a problem exacerbated by attempting to juggle a global conspiracy about "member berries", a secret supervillain in the Broflovski household, Denmark's evil plot to reveal the world's browsing history, Cartman and Heidi's attempt to flee Earth via the SpaceX program, and more. There's just waaay too much thrown in the pot here, with the ongoing election chaos being just one more straw that breaks the camel's back. To make matters worse, there's so much plot crammed in these episodes that it leaves less room for jokes, as the belly laugh count here is considerably lower than past seasons.
Luckily, Parker and Stone seemed to recognize their mistake---which to be fair, was more bad timing than anything else---as season finale "The End of Serialization as We Know It" (as well as a few obvious digs at the format in earlier episodes) all but confirms that they're hitting the reset button for Season 21. Considering South Park's long and surprisingly consistent lifespan thus far, I think they're allowed a couple of Mulligans every now and then. As usual, Paramount presents Season 20 on Blu-ray with a great A/V presentation and plenty of extras.
(View episode descriptions - spoilers, obviously)
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratios, all ten episodes look especially crisp and bright, with no obvious signs of edge enhancement, combing, or compression artifacts. The only mild (but persistent) issue is banding; it's not uncommon in animation releases, but rears its ugly head during a few darker scenes or those with harsh lighting. It's perfectly acceptable under the circumstances, especially since this may very well be a source material issue; after all, the episodes are given plenty of room to breathe and Paramount has a very strong track record otherwise. Otherwise, no complaints: South Park looks great in high definition, and I'm glad we're still given a Blu-ray option.
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The audio impresses in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 with crisp dialogue and a broad presence during several unexpected moments. Channel separation and surround activity are ample during action scenes, with a noticeable amount of LFE at times, while the occasionally bombastic score sounds great as well. Given this season's global scope, it's a fitting audio experience. Optional English (SDH) subtitles have been included during all applicable content.
Menu Design & Packaging
As usual, Paramount serves up this two-disc package in a nice fold-out digipak case with an embossed slipcover, highlighted by colorful, season-specific artwork and plenty of clever little in-jokes. The menu interface features clips from this season and smooth, simple navigation (even if some of the text is a little small for my eyes).
In a possible attempt to balance out the below-average episodes, we're treated to a slightly bigger pile of extras that are spread across both discs. Die-hard fans should already be familiar with the abridged Season Commentary (20 minutes) by Parker and Stone that provides a candid account of their successes and mistakes; given how this season turned out, it's definitely worth a listen. Also returning is the "Pop-Up Video"-style #Socialcommentary feature on each episode, with plenty of trivial tidbits added in to boost replay value, as well as a short collection of Deleted Scenes (11 minutes) presented in a mixture of rough and finished formats with voice work and music added.
Disc 2 serves up an Extended Q&A Panel (55 minutes) with Parker and Stone from Comic Con 2016; it was recorded a week or two before the season premiere, so they're in much better spirits than the audio commentary. Moderated by The Nerdist's Chris Hardwick (and quite painfully at times, as he has the bad habit of laughing like Jimmy Fallon right into the microphone), the duo talks about the show's history, their creative habits, other projects, and much more. Fans ask questions during the last 20 minutes, which reminded me why I don't go to these things.
A few other nuggets are here as well, including ">South Park By the Numbers" (a 1 minute clip of stats and figures from the show's run thus far), "We've Been There" (a 1 minute retrospective of the series from a family's point of view), and an E3 Trailer for "South Park: The Fractured But Whole" game coming in October from Ubisoft (2 minutes). Optional English subtitles are included for all applicable extras, even the audio commentary.
"'Member Season 19, guys? 'Member?" At the risk of waxing nostalgic, Season 20 of South Park doesn't reach the heights of last year's successful run or most seasons before it. But it's obvious that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were more the victims of bad timing than writer's block; in fact, they try too hard at times, and this season's chaotic second half (largely due to an unexpected election outcome) finds South Park in over its head. Still, there are enough clever ideas and genuine laughs to not consider Season 20 a total disaster, and below-average South Park is still better than The Simpsons and Family Guy these days. Paramount's Blu-ray picks up the slack with a great A/V presentation and more bonus features than usual. Recommended to fans, but not newcomers.