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South Park: The Complete Thirteenth Season
After thirteen seasons and 195 episodes, South Park remains one of the smartest and most consistently funny shows on television. In its first season, the program was a crude, daring bad-boy, willing to do anything for a laugh - or to generate controversy. But as time passed, South Park's reputation quickly grew as the intelligence of its creators became evident, nearly every episode driven by sharp satire. The fourteen episodes of South Park: The Complete Thirteenth Season include a bunch of hits, a few that miss the mark, but, overall, add up to a wholly satisfying season with a number of classic plotlines and jokes.
I hate to try to demystify the difficult subject of comedy, but it's interesting to think about why some shows succeed for so long while other struggle and fail. Maybe South Park's ongoing effectiveness has to do with the continued ownership of the program by its creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Parker is credited as the writer and director of every episode of the thirteenth season, with Stone serving as a producer and voice actor.
But the real key to South Park's success, in this reviewer's opinion, is the way it satirizes topical material in a broadly inclusive way, which both makes the subject matter highly relatable and prevents it from dating. Take Episode 1313, "Dances with Smurfs," which takes on Glenn Beck and James Cameron's Avatar with equal force. In years to come, Beck and Avatar will probably (let's hope) be a lot less relevant than they are now, but these jokes will probably still work - because the concept of Cartman turning the school's morning announcements into a full-blown politicized chat show will still be funny, and so will the "plagiarizing" of Cartman's Smurf story, regardless of whether or not you've seen Avatar. The roots of South Park's satire are always situational and character-oriented, using topical references more as a "way in" to the jokes rather than serving as their explicit basis. In this way, South Park is diametrically opposed to its sworn TV nemesis, Family Guy, which it effectively (and permanently, in my view) eviscerated in the two-part Season 10 masterwork, "Cartoon Wars."
"Fishsticks" is the standout episode from the thirteenth season. It takes Kanye West to task for being a humorless, self-important fool - and perhaps no one is more deserving of the South Park treatment than this monumentally egotistical jackass. But when you get past that, the real humor of the episode is rooted in the "fishsticks/fish dicks" joke itself and the very idea that a joke made up by fourth-graders, and operating very much on a fourth-grade level of sophistication, could spread like comedy wildfire across the country, finding its way into common parlance. It's the fact that everyone knows this joke and sort of falls in love with it (except Kanye, of course) that propels the episode along. The Kanye West material is absurdist gravy; it works perfectly well, but it wouldn't without the other, deeper-set concept behind it.
"Margaritaville" deals with the collapsing economy. "Fatbeard" covers the spate of attacks by Somali pirates. "Dead Celebrities" addresses the onslaught of celebrity deaths in the summer of 2009. "Pee" satirizes Roland Emmerich's 2012 and Mayan prophecy-believers. What makes all of this even more impressive is the show's one-week production schedule, which means that South Park is able to address current events with incredible immediacy - to say nothing of the smart, brash comedic tone that out-does Saturday Night Live, which prides itself on staying topical.
It's nice to know that South Park - which has long outshone the decade-long decline of The Simpsons - will be around for at least another two seasons on Comedy Central. The show remains fresh, sharp, hilarious, and - yes - shocking. But the shocks are not for their own sake. The alert comic sensibility of the show's creators infuses each episode with a sense of unpredictable fun backed by an intelligent skepticism of just about every major American enthusiasm.
South Park's thirteenth season is packaged like the show's other releases. Fourteen episodes are spread across three discs housed in a Digipak foldout sleeve. This is tucked into a card slipcover.
Each episode is presented in an enhanced 1.78:1 transfer. The image is flawless throughout. The vibrant colors are rock-solid. Contrast is excellent. The show's bright color palette remains appealing. The show's success has allowed for the creation of more detailed backgrounds, all of which are replicated with stark clarity here.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks on each episode are crystal-clear and occasionally very active. While dialogue remains at the forefront of the mix, music is enveloping, and sound effects are often employed with a sense of space that opens up the soundstage of this crudely animated program - sometimes in surprising ways. Overall, the sound treatment is more engaging than you might expect.
Co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker continue to provide their Mini-Commentaries for each episode, short five-minute overviews that are really all you need. The episodes speak for themselves quite effectively, but having these insights from their creators is enlightening. In addition to these, all Paramount has included are a handful of Deleted Scenes (7:14) and an Xbox Live promo titled A Behind the Scenes Tour of South Park Studios (4:36). These are pretty paltry bonuses, but the show itself is so strong, I have a hard time feeling shortchanged.
On the eve of its fourteenth season (it premieres on March 17), South Park remains an energetic show, jam-packed with laughs, and a thoughtful, engaged part of the culture to boot. It's amazing how many people I come across who remain dismissive of the show despite the fact that it's one of the smartest things on television. Highly recommended.