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Analysis: South Park

Analysis of Three South Park Christmas Episodes

I started writing these analyses for a television board right around Christmastime, specifically to celebrate the coming fifteenth anniversary of South Park. When trying to come up with a starting point, I figured, "what better way to start this retrospective on South Park, and what I find to be its essential episodes, than with their Christmas episodes?" To be fair, I had to pare down the list of Christmas episodes they’ve done to an essential three, which wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.

Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo was really an easy decision to make, as it might be one of the most famous episodes of South Park ever, much less one of their most popular Christmas episodes. It introduces so much into the South Park mythos as well – Sheila Broflovski as a crusader for a nebulously-defined ‘justice’ and the first singing of “Kyle’s Mom is a Bitch” stand out in particular, though the live-action mock commercial, a popular interstitial in early South Park episodes, is also present. It’s Christmas in Canada was likewise easy for me to select, mostly because I adore the Canadian infrastructure as portrayed by the show and I love South Park Canadians. Woodland Christmas Critters, though, slides in as my third choice because it was the first episode of South Park I ever saw.

I will admit that, had I never seen another episode of the show (The Ungroundable, which is probably in my top ten South Park episodes of all time) right after being subjected to… well, whatever the fuck Woodland Christmas Critters is, I probably would not have watched another episode of my own volition. It’s a perverse, horrifying episode of television that is only redeemed by its ending twist, which still doesn’t change the fact that it is, for a major part of its runtime, about satanic woodland creatures having blood orgies and abortions. But let’s hold off on my rage for a second.

The connecting thread through these episodes is, obviously, their Christmas theme. What makes them interesting is how differently each episode portrays the general feeling of the season. Mr. Hankey’s main thematic thrust is combining the trappings of a traditional Santa Claus-esque mythology with the over-the-top efforts of Mayor Mc Daniels to make sure that no one is offended by anything specific to a given holiday. It covers a fairly broad spectrum of holiday alienation tactics in this way – the protagonist for the episode is Kyle, who feels extremely left out with his classmates since he is the only Jewish child at school. This alienation becomes even more obvious when he starts talking about a certain Mr. Hankey, who is a sentient piece of shit, and begins to actively disgust and frighten not only his classmates, but his parents, teachers, and counselors. His alienation has a parallel in the continuing problems with Mr. Garrison’s Christmas play, which offends Kyle’s mother Sheila, as it is centered wholly on Christian tradition. Not wishing to offend anyone, Mayor Mc Daniels steps in to make sure that no one feels offended – in essence, trying to prevent any further alienation, oblivious to the fact that the entire town is turning on Kyle and his seeming obsession with feces. The episode culminates with Kyle in a mental institution, as completely alienated from society as he can possibly get, and a holiday play that has so little to do with anything that it immediately turns its audience against each other, each parent and onlooker blaming the other for this obvious disparity between their wishes and the reality they’ve forced on each other.

Yeah, the episode is more known for featuring a talking piece of poop that leaves smears wherever it touches. It’s shock humor through and through, but the episode, at its core, isn’t about Mr. Hankey and his magic. It’s about the way in which the holidays divide society. Kyle’s efforts to fit in with his classmates turn him into a social pariah, while Sheila makes the town capable of seeing things only in divisions. The line where Mr. Garrison informs the children that they have to take down Christmas lights in the gymnasium because they ‘may be offensive to epileptics’ demonstrates this perfectly. The episode is also, clearly, a screed against taking political correctness too far. Whether or not you believe that our society focuses too much on being politically correct, the underlying conceit that people do not want to feel separated, in any way, during the holiday seasons, comes through as well. Sheila acts out of concern for her son, and that concern backfires, as it tends to do in South Park, into an insane mess.

It’s Christmas in Canada also features division as one of its major themes, in that its central plot is that Kyle’s adopted Canadian brother, Ike, has been stolen away by his birth parents to Canada. His family is devastated, and Mayor Mc Daniels, acting on the suggestions of the townsfolk (for once acting selflessly), suggests that everyone not buy presents this year and instead try to raise money for the Broflovskis to challenge the Canadian law that allows Ike’s birth parents to keep him in Canada. The divides in this episode are not a result of alienation, but of forcible separation – every conflict raised was forced upon the conflicted by some outside force. The other children turn themselves against Kyle because they view their parents’ sacrifices as a direct result of his family’s interference; Kyle turns himself against the townspeople’s plans to try and ease the pressure on him, deciding to go directly to the Prime Minister of Canada to make his case. And once in Canada, Kyle finds that he is not alone in turning against the government – indeed, a good portion of the Canadian population has been grieved by their new Prime Minister, adding another layer of forced divisions. Everyone in It’s Christmas in Canada has been turned against someone who, on their own, they cannot hope to defeat.

There are uneasy alliances. The other three main boys ally themselves with Kyle when it becomes clear that, on their own, they will not get a Christmas/have a Christmas adventure. (This episode, more starkly than some of the other South Park Christmas episodes, also demonstrates the complete selfishness that overtakes some people during the holidays. The plot is set in motion by the selfish act of the Gintz family, and Cartman’s entire motivation for helping Kyle is to get himself some sort of materialistic Christmas. Of the compendium of selfishness displayed in this episode, Stan, however, ends up looking the worst – he wants to have a Christmas adventure so bad that he’s oblivious to the one he’s starring in.) The boys, in turn, join up with the mentally unstable City Wok man, and then a trio of eccentric Canadians from different portions of the country, in order to, hopefully, get what they want.

In opposition to Mr. Hankey, It’s Christmas in Canada does not directly address holiday loneliness, beyond having it as a framing device. Rather, its central issues seem to be with the dichotomy of selfishness and selflessness. In the end, Cartman’s only closure, after missing Christmas, is getting lightly hit in the face by Kyle and bawling his eyes out. Stan, as mentioned earlier, is so blinded by his selfish wants that he doesn’t realize he had a Christmas adventure. Saddam Hussein and Scott the Dick, as always with them, are defeated in the end, and their selfish motivations are torn down. In the end, the Canadians with legitimate petitions and Kyle – people acting on behalf of their respective areas, and to benefit more than themselves – are the ones who are rewarded: Kyle and Ike are reunited, the French Canadian gets wine for his people, the Mounties are given back their horses, and the Newfoundlander… can practice sodomy… again. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but the gist of the message is the same.

Oddly enough, despite there being at least two direct sequels to Mr. Hankey, thematically and content-wise, It’s Christmas in Canada acts like more of a sequel to Mr. Hankey than, say, It’s a Crappy Christmas. There are similar running jokes carried over through both – Mr. Garrison, apparently, wants those Mexicans out of South Park, at any cost – and similar themes of distance. Kyle acts as the center to both episodes, something that isn’t unheard of for South Park, but is unusual in the Christmas episodes. Save Woodland Christmas Critters, the other Christmas episodes focus mostly on the adventures of all four boys, working in tandem (until Kenny gets offed).

Which brings us to… sigh. Woodland Christmas Critters is truly one of the more disturbing half-hours of animation I’ve come across. Animation doesn’t really faze me all that much, mind you. I grew up with anime. I know that’s stereotyping, but honestly, it’s so true – anime can be really screwed up. There is something distinctly off with Woodland Christmas Critters, off in a way that not a whole lot of other things in South Park are. South Park always flirts with the boundaries of bad taste, but this is one of the few times we’re given a really good look inside Cartman’s mind, and God, I never want to go back in there. Clearly, my mind didn’t want to revisit the episode at all, as I blanked out a good portion of it before rewatching it for the purposes of this review.

If Mr. Hankey and It’s Christmas in Canada eventually affirm the necessity for coming together and avoiding division during the holidays, Woodland Christmas Critters affirms… well, God knows. It is basically a parody of old, cutesy Christmas specials – the commentary suggests John Denver’s Christmas special, but my mind went to that old one with the mice and the singing clock, whatever that one was called. Its main thematic thrust is throwing in as many horrifying plot twists as humanly possible… then having us laugh when it’s revealed that the whole exercise was a story told by Cartman in class.

It is, I’ll admit, a clever framing device. It explains the incongruities in what the narrator tells Stan (or, as he is known for this episode, Stan-ee) and what Stan actually decides to do in the course of the story. It also explains why Kyle goes batshit crazy at the end of the story. But it comes about eighteen minutes in to a twenty-two minute episode that, by all accounts, is just…

So basically, our story is that there are a group of Woodland Christmas Critters. One of them, a lady porcupine named Porcupine-ee (super creative) is, as a virgin, pregnant with the savior. Stan, feeling some sort of compelling reason to help the Critters, kills the mountain lion that usually preys on the virgin pregnant critter. Only then does he learn that the savior is really the Antichrist, and the Christmas Critters are the kind of Satanists that every mother in the eighties was afraid would steal away their children’s minds with Dungeons and Dragons and hair metal music. This is illustrated via an extremely graphic sacrifice and a blood orgy. Really. I guess there is a theme of division in this episode, if you assume that the episode is attempting to ally with you with Stan and feel his pain via graphically demonstrating just how wrong his – and, subsequently, the audience’s – expectations and assumptions about a group of cutesy animals are.

The only way to kill the Antichrist, is, apparently, mountain lions. With the mountain lion queen dead, the only way to train the mountain lion cubs she left behind to kill the Antichrist is to… teach them how to perform abortions. When Stan gets back from that particular soul-sucking exercise, he’s too late anyways. The Antichrist has been born, and, in a fit of out of character behavior, Kyle, who is a heathen Jew, as the narration is quick to remind us (God this episode…), decides he wants to host the Antichrist.

I honestly tried to think of what the overarching theme of this episode might be, in light of the resolution, that Cartman is telling a story. I tried to think of some way to tie this in to the previous two episodes, but I didn’t think I could do it without stretching the elements to their breaking point. The episode does have a… happy? …ending, I suppose, with Kyle being absolutely humiliated (thanks, Eric) and Stan having a nice Christmas. But its main purpose seems to be to completely shit on the audience for their expectations of something calm and cute. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but there is something unspeakably heinous about this episode. I was finally able to put my finger on it after watching it a few times – having it presented as a figment of Cartman’s imagination makes it liable to the characterization of Cartman. There is no commentary on the action happening, nothing to dull the shock of what is unfolding on the television screen. This is a fucked-up child, giving a fucked-up story to a bunch of his less-fucked classmates… who, apparently, enjoy it. It’s a circle of never-ending fuckery.

It’s also the best illustration of just how dysfunctional South Park is. It’s Christmas in Canada showed most of the adult town members at their best; Woodland Christmas Critters’ denouement shows the children at their absolute worst, complicit in the utter humiliation of one of their classmates and the megalomania of another. Even Stan, who usually has some sort of head on his shoulders – as demonstrated by his angry interjections throughout the story – wants to hear the end, swayed by the storytelling Cartman displays.

While it doesn’t quite tie into the other two episodes neatly, and though I really would rather not revisit the episode again, Woodland Christmas Critters is an extremely shocking example of how effective subversion of expectations in a narrative can be. And while I was tempted to argue that the episode is nothing but a string of nihilistic images, it does have a rather clever conceit behind it.

Anyways. That has been 2,400 words on three episodes of South Park. Sorry for subjecting you to that. Hopefully, this is well-enough received on TV Tropes to merit me posting the other analyses I've completed. Thanks for reading!

Kyle's Friendship with Stan

After watching sixteen seasons of South Park, I've come to the conclusion that Kyle is a terrible friend to Stan. They're presented as the two best friends and the focus of the show, but of the both of them Kyle seems the least supportive and an absolute jerk.

Let's take a look at episodes where Kyle has needed help. In Cherokee Hair Tampons his diabetes had taken a turn for the worst and needed a kidney transplant. In Super Best Friends he unknowingly joins a suicide cult and is caged when he tries to escape. In The List he's listed as the ugliest boy in the class and his self-esteem takes a hard hit.

Where is Stan in all of these cases? Stan is helping Kyle. He searches harder than anybody for a kidney for Kyle in Cherokee Hair Tampons. Kyle's the only person he's trying to save in Super Best Friends. And in The List he pushes for a revision of the list and it almost kills him. In these cases, Stan's friendship with Kyle is shown with the amount of effort he puts into saving his best friend. Even when the odds are against Stan he doesn't give up.

Now let's look at the episodes where Stan has needed help. In Raisins he's unceremoniously dumped by Wendy. And in Growing Up Sucks/Ass Burgers he becomes cynical as the result of turning ten.

Where is Kyle for Stan in these cases? Nowhere. Sure, Kyle tries to help Stan at first in these cases but he puts forth the bare minimal effort in trying to make him feel better. When the odds turn against Kyle though, what does he do? He abandons Stan. In both cases he finds Stan's change in attitude to be annoying and he ditches him entirely to hang out with other people. In both cases this results in Stan sinking into a deeper hole and he's forced to pull himself out. Or as in the case of Ass Burgers he's not even out of the hole and has become an alcoholic.

We've yet to see Kyle go to any of the lengths Stan has gone for him. Kyle has shown repeatedly that he expects Stan to act in a certain way, and if Stan doesn't act that way then he doesn't want to deal with him. Though they are presented as best friends on the show, and Kyle is presented as being usually more mature than Stan, it seems fairly obvious that Kyle isn't as emotionally mature as Stan. He doesn't know how to deal with changes in Stan, as Stan knows how to deal with changes in Kyle, and that's what makes him a terrible friend to Stan.
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