‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“And as for you, Pip, my robot monkeys should take care of you!”
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have shown time and time again that they’re willing to go way beyond the core characters in the South Park universe. Episodes have seen departures in form and subject, focusing on characters as tertiary as Terrance and Phillip, Butters, or in its most extreme examples, a random species of lice, or Oprah’s vagina and anus. Before South Park had experienced the late-game renaissance that so often fuels it now, these sort of experiments were not nearly as common. In fact, the series’ only real experience with it at this point was their “April Fools prank” of an episode, “Terrance and Phillip in Not Without My Anus,” an installment that raised such ire in fans it led to Parker and Stone receiving death threats. While “Not Without My Anus” has come to be recognized as an early classic episode, it’s not hard to imagine that “Pip” was met with an even more scathing reception.
It’s a little surprising that this riff on Dickens’ Great Expectations had been an idea gestating within South Park since its pilot. Pip’s introduction – as well as his dialogue – is directly pulled from the 1860s novel and Parker and Stone have gone as far as saying that re-telling the classic story was something they were interested in doing since the start of the show. Accordingly, it makes a lot of sense that the structure and presentation of this episode would go through several revisions. Their initial plan was for this to be a lavish musical, their first after the South Park feature film, but this plan continued to fall to the wayside. Other iterations saw Pip himself telling this story to the class, bookending the installment with classroom segments. Another had Chef acting as the narrator. The version they settled upon – the strongest of the bunch – is that none of the traditional characters from the show are seen, with a live-action Masterpiece Theater-esque introduction by Malcolm McDowell (“Hello, I’m a British person”). This version distances itself the most from the standard South Park format, intentionally drawing attention to the fact that this is something different. This was in part informed by Parker and Stone learning their lesson from “Not Without My Anus” and that deviations like this require a proper easing in.
When a plan was finally settled upon, “Pip” still ended up having a lengthier production process than the standard episode. While South Park has become known for its ability to produce an entire episode within a week, this episode was spread out over the course of months. South Park, particularly in its earlier days, largely worked by reusing assets to streamline the animation process. However, an entry like this used almost entirely new locations and characters, with it all having to be done from scratch. Additionally, the episode looks distinctly different than average South Park episodes, with exterior scenes and characters having unusual Dickensian looks that took on more of a ‘70s Rankin/Bass look. On top of all of this, the episode really does try to show off its Great Expectations knowledge, with characters like Joe, Pocket, Estella, the convict from the beginning, and Miss Havisham all coming right out of the novel. Things stick fairly strictly to Dickens’ script other than there being small anachronisms, like Estella’s boyfriend “being seventeen and [having] a car,” before fully going off the rails. By the end there’s dialogue like, “My father died in a stamp collecting accident,” and Estella consecutively breaking the necks of two dozen baby bunnies. We’re a long way from the orphanage.
What I think makes “Pip” such a remarkable episode of television is just how long of a con it pulls here. Make no mistake, there’s nothing really groundbreaking about retelling classic stories in a modern medium. The Simpsons have been doing this for literally decades now, churning out anthology installments devoted to Bible stories or classic lit, much to the eye rolls of audiences. “Pip” isn’t doing that. What’s so brilliant about this episode – and it’s such a South Park way of doing things – is that it presents a very accurate, dry adaptation of Great Expectations, until literally the last minute, where its final act turns into an absurd post-modern mess involving eternal youth, body swapping, and robot monkeys.
It’s almost like the episode wants you to get bored or frustrated with it during the first half, shutting it off in resignation, and having no idea of the batshit insane ending that’s coming. “Pip” is an extremely patient episode that pushes the limits of the audience before delivering the ultimate payoff. So much time is spent on authenticity to the novel and its atmosphere, rather than trying to create jokes (although I’m constantly laughing at Miss Havisham’s voice), that you almost can’t believe what you’re seeing when Miss Havisham ever-so casually brings up her Genesis Device and supervillain nature. The ultimate plan of Miss Havisham involves using Estella to break Pip’s heart, causing him to cry. These tears of course being the necessary ingredient in powering Havisham’s Genesis Device, which will allow her to switch bodies with Estella, securing her youth and beauty. Like, is that not the most beautiful, ridiculous sentence that you’ve ever read?
It’s easy to see how such an experiment didn’t work for some people – in fact, Parker and Stone have even publicly voiced their own disappointment in it, and it’s intentionally been scarcely aired on Comedy Central due to the complaints that it has generated. Personally, I think the episode’s polarizing effect on people is even more proof of its worth. The episode is practically a legend at this point, making it even more of an artifact that needs to be sought out, otherwise it won’t be seen.
It feels like this episode was years ahead of its time, feeling much more like the sort of endeavor that they might take on now. With how much the show has grown since its humble fourth season, I daresay that something with “Pip’s” approach would work much better now. It at least wouldn’t be burned at the stake by the audience.
I still have hope that at some point the tide will turn and this episode will be seen in a better light. South Park is a show about combining the ultra intelligent with the super stupid, with “Pip” being the most meticulous, straight-faced example of this. It’s a little disappointing that with the “South Park Classics” title that proudly introduces the episode that we’ve never gotten a follow-up installment. That being said, with South Park’s creativity and energy being stronger than ever, maybe it won’t be long until Malcolm McDowell – or any British person for that matter – is sitting back in that chair.