Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Advocates of TV on DVD rejoice! Little by little, studios have acquiesced and released full seasons of different programs. A few years back, we mostly saw “best of” packages, but that’s largely changed in the interim, especially now that some of the biggest holdouts have joined the parade.
Warner Bros. stayed their “best of” course longer than most of the rest, but they’ve finally come around and changed their policies. We saw the first substantial evidence of this in the spring of 2002 when they put out the first season of Friends, a show that previously offered four compilation DVDs. South Park produced even more separate discs. Rhino started with the license back in 1998 and actually began the series in order. They didn’t put out any season sets, but their releases followed the programs in the way they appeared on TV.
After that, however, WB got the rights, and they began their series of theme releases. These seemed good, really, and offered some nice material, but I could understand the frustration of fans who wanted to have whole season boxed sets.
Finally, WB granted their wishes with South Park: The Complete First Season. This indeed collects all 13 episodes from the 1997-98 term. I’ll examine each of these programs in the way presented on the DVDs. That usually follows the order in which they were produced, but some exceptions occur; I’ll discuss those toward the end of the review. The synopses come straight from the DVD’s liner notes; I usually write my own, but these seem pretty good, so why reinvent the wheel?
The series pilot, Cartman Gets an Anal Probe (aired August 13, 1997) launched the series on a pretty good note. The only episode animated by creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, “alien visitors wreak havoc in South Park when they kidnap Kyle’s little brother Ike, mutilate dozens of innocent cows, and give Eric Cartman an anal probe. Flaming flatulence, skeptical school officials and a preteen seductress named Wendy Testaburger are a few of the obstacles the boys must face as they try to rescue poor Ike from the clutches of the mysterious visitors.”
While not one of the series’ best shows, “Probe” at least launches the show fairly well. Even at this early stage, we see some terrific little moments. It isn’t enough for us to see a character vomit; amusingly, we then watch a bird play in the puke. Park also delights in bizarre asides, like this episode’s scene in which Cartman bellows at his cat about his pot pie. I don’t think “Probe” does anything exceptional, but it’s still hard to dislike a show with terrified cows and fire that shoots from Cartman’s ass.
Weight Gain 4000 (aired August 27, 1997): “When Cartman’s environmental essay wins a national contest, America’s sweetheart, Kathy Lee Gifford, comes to South Park to present this award on national television. While Cartman is busy bulking up for his TV debut, Mr. Garrison suffers flashbacks of a childhood humiliation at the hands of Mrs. Gifford. Mr. Hat convinces Garrison to even the score once and for all, and together they hatch a malevolent plot to kill Kathy Lee! Stan, Kyle and Wendy must stop their deranged Mr. Garrison before it’s too late.”
Another decent but unexceptional episode, “4000” suffers a little from “try too hard” syndrome. It seems like the folks behind the show wanted to pack in everything they could in these early shows, which makes them come across as somewhat forced and awkward. Still, we get more good Cartman material when he gains massive amounts of weight and becomes “beefcake”. Overall, this show appears entertaining but average.
Volcano (aired August 20, 1997): “Stan’s uncle Jimbo and his Vietnam buddy Ned take the boys on a weekend trip to experience the finer points of camping, fishing and blowing animals to smithereens. An erupting volcano and a mysterious creature named Scuzzlebutt not only threaten the boys’ excursion but endanger the entire town of South Park as well.”
A definite improvement over the last two episodes, “Volcano” shows the concise satirical wit that can make South Park so great. It takes on hunters and government propaganda and scores against both. We also meet Scuzzlebutt, the coolest mythical creature ever. “Volcano” provides a generally solid episode.
Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride (aired September 3, 1997): “The big homecoming football game pits the South Park Cows against their arch rivals, the Middle Park Cowboys. Uncle Jimbo has convinced the rest of the town to bet heavily on his nephew, Stan the star quarterback, to beat the 60-point spread. But when Stan discovers his new dog Sparky is gay, he becomes so confused he loses his will to play in the big game. A mysterious magical new friend, Big Gay Al, helps Stan understand the wonders of being gay and sends him back into the game.”
The first episode to feature a guest star, “Gay” enlists George Clooney to play Sparky. It’s rather hard to dislike a show that casts a major actor as a homosexual pooch, and “Gay” works well across the board. It starts a little slowly but picks up nicely by the time we actually meet Big Gay Al and his hilarious menagerie of swishy critters. The scenes in his disco and on the boat ride itself offer great material. “Gay” gives us another very strong program.
An Elephant Makes Love to a Pig (aired September 10, 1997): “When Kyle’s mail-order elephant gets to be too big to take on the school bus, the boys get a great idea - they decide to genetically crossbreed the elephant with Cartman’s potbellied pig Fluffy to make potbellied elephants! When they try to enlist the help of the mysterious geneticist Mephesto, things go terribly awry. Mephesto makes an evil clone from Stan’s DNA and now the boys must stop the clone from destroying the town of South Park.”
Probably the best episode to date, this one gives us lots of great moments. From Cartman’s misogyny to a faux Elton John cameo to a glimpse of the special ed bus to the big-headed Stan clone, “Elephant” seems like a winner. It appears consistently funny and clever, and I simply love hearing the Stan clone talk; after I watched the show, it was tough to get me to say anything other than “chewie chewie chomp” for days. By the way, am I the only one who thinks that Mephesto’s bizarre little helper was the inspiration for Mini-Me?
Death (aired September 17, 1997): “At his grandfather’s 102nd birthday, Stan is forced with a moral dilemma – Grandpa’s sole birthday wish is for Stan to be the assist in his assisted suicide. When the Grim Reaper finally arrives for Grandpa, or so the boys think, things go from bad to worse. Mrs. Broflovski has organized a protest against the boys’ favorite TV show, Terrance and Phillip, and the South Park parents have left the kids on their own to follow Kyle’s mom to the network headquarters in the big city. Now the kids have no on to rely on when they confront Death.”
After two straight terrific shows, the series takes a dip with “Death”. It tries too hard to tack on a social message about the way we treat the old and comes across as abnormally crass and stiff. Still, some good moments emerge, especially when Grandpa uses Enya’s horrible “music” to show Stan how it feels to be old.
In addition, “Death” offers our first look at Terrance and Phillip. Actually, the episode strongly foreshadows 1999’s theatrical release South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Though the latter seems much funnier than “Death”, the Terrance and Phillip related plot elements appear very similar.
Pinkeye (aired October 28, 1997): “Trick or treat in South Park is interrupted by an outbreak of pinkeye. While Stan, Kyle, and Cartman are getting themselves ready for the school’s Halloween party and costume contest, a mishap at the morgue transforms the residents of South Park into brain-eating zombies. The kids have to save the day before they can get down to the business of trick-or-treating.”
The series’ first holiday-themed show, “Pinkeye” also offers the initial alteration of the credits, which reflect Halloween. “Pinkeye” rebounds from “Death” and provides a consistently excellent episode. Cartman dresses as Hitler – what more do you need? The show seems clever and inventive and works well across the board.
Starvin’ Marvin (aired November 19, 1997): “South Park is at the mercy of genetically altered turkeys gone bad. While trying to get a free promotional digital watch, the kids end up contacting an organization that helps starving children in Africa. Mistaking Cartman for a starving African child, government authorities send him to Ethiopia. Adding chaos to confusion, a flock of wild turkeys revolt after their treatment at the hands of the local genetic engineer.”
I didn’t embrace South Park from episode one, and it wasn’t until “Marvin” that I really started to like the series. In retrospect, this show isn’t as great as I remembered, but it still works quite nicely. It makes some social points in the usual politically incorrect way, and it offers some wonderfully bizarre moments like crazed turkeys who re-enact a scene from Braveheart. All that and it even points out the incongruity of fat Sally Struthers acting as the pitch-woman to raise money for starving people!
Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo (aired December 17, 1998): “I believe in Mr. Hankey! While South Park Elementary is attempting to stage a non-denominational holiday play that won’t offend (or entertain) anyone, Kyle has checked himself into the South Park mental house. It’s just Christmastime in South Park. In this landmark episode, an unlikely hero saves the day.”
Our third straight holiday-themed episode, “Poo” introduces two major Park characters. We get the titular piece of crap as well as the school’s counselor, Mr. Mackey. The show tosses some good jabs at attempts to secularize Christmas, and Mr. Hankey provides one of the most oddly endearing characters in a while. In addition, it’s hard to beat Cartman’s song about Kyle’s mother. “Poo” provides another solid episode.
Damien (aired February 4, 1998): “Cartman’s birthday is upstaged by the battle of good against evil. When the son of the Prince of Darkness arrives in South Park, he sets of a chain of bizarre events that culminate in a battle between Jesus and Satan. The big event at the South Park Forum conflicts with Cartman’s annual birthday celebration.”
After a nearly two-month break, Park returns with something of a whimper. “Damien” seems watchable but doesn’t stand as one of the series’ better programs. As usual, Cartman provides its best moments, as we see his excessive greed and selfishness. For the second straight show, he tosses in a memorable little tune as well. While the Cartman bits work well, those that focus on Damien seem less satisfying. Still, “Damien” manages to seem reasonably entertaining.
Tom’s Rhinoplasty (aired February 11, 1998): “Don’t f**k with Wendy Testaburger!” It’s almost Valentine’s Day and love is in the air at South Park Elementary School. While Mr. Garrison deserts the class for a visit to Tom’s Rhinoplasty, Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman all compete for the attention of Ms. Ellen, the new substitute teacher. Wendy sees Ms. Ellen as a threat to her relationship with Stan and is forced to take action when it looks like Ms. Ellen is in South Park to stay.”
Time for another holiday-themed show! We also get our second guest star, as Natasha Henstridge – irreverently billed just as “the chick from Species - plays Ms. Ellen. I never liked Mr. Garrison, but here he gets the show’s best moments after his nose job turns him into a David Hasslehof clone. “Rhinoplasty” doesn’t reach a level of greatness, but it provides a generally good episode that seems consistently entertaining.
Mecha-Streisand (aired February 18, 1998): “The dawn of Zinthor is close at hand! The boys’ discovery of a prehistoric relic spawns a monster that threatens to destroy South Park and the world. Help is on the way, however, in the form of an award-winning actor, a celebrated movie critic and a rock superstar. But are they enough to overcome the terror of Mecha-Streisand?”
Probably the most surreal show to date, “Mecha” also provides another guest appearance. Robert Smith of the Cure stretches his talents to play Robert Smith of the Cure. The episode starts slowly and seems just a little too silly at those times, but it improves as it progresses. The sheer strangeness of the program slowly wins over the viewer, and it’s hard to dislike a program that so strongly attacks the ever-annoying Babs Streisand.
Cartman’s Mom is a Dirty Slut (aired February 25, 1998): “Eric Cartman in is search of his father but no one is owning up to the job. Could it be Chef? Or is it Mr. Garrison? Or the 1989 Denver Broncos? It could be anyone who attended South Park’s 12th Annual Drunken Barn Dance. Cartman just has to know, and only an expensive genetic test stands between him and the true identity of his father. Stan, Kyle, Kenny and America’s Stupidest Home Videos may be the answer to Cartman’s prayers.”
The final episode of Season One, “Slut” offers a minor cliffhanger. I call it “minor” not because of the content; the show ends on a tantalizing note. However, it didn’t take long for the resolution to the episode to appear; only four weeks separated the end of Season One and the start of Season Two.
Unfortunately, “Slut” ends Season One on a lackluster note. Cartman’s identity crisis provides the show’s best moments, especially when we see his pathetic stuffed animal tea party. However, the program feels too much like an attempt to be an event, and it lacks the depth I expect from the show. “Slut” presents a decent episode but not a terribly good one.
Despite some ups and downs, Season One of South Park generally appears satisfying. Even the crummiest episodes still have their moments, and I don’t actually find any of them to seem bad. That would quickly change, as we’ll see whenever Warner Bros. releases a Season Two DVD package. As I recall, the series declined rapidly, though it would later rebound. Nonetheless, Season One probably remains the show’s best, and it contains a lot of good material.