So South Park went live action. And Stan is apparently the best looking of the group. But we’ll get back to that later.
This week, South Park satirized the Dateline-esque newsshow by adopting its format and sticking with it throughout the entire episode. A deep voiced narrator leads us through the day the boys decided to go ziplining with frequent standard-issue reality show cuts back to the boys in an interview room reacting to what just happened, tense musical interludes teasing action and tragedy, and graphic representations of stomachs and brains to lend a cheesy scientific bent to the account of the day. And the show gets everything about that awful format right. From the totally unnecessary cuts to the interview room where we listen to an aggravated character essentially repeat what we just saw (“And we were like ‘others?’ We have to do this with other people?”) to the gratuitous details of the “storm brewing” in Cartman’s stomach thanks to a combustible combination of fast food and Diet Double Dew.
Besides Kenny dying of boredom, nothing really happens. The ziplining tour is just soul crushingly lame. It’s a good gag that plays with the scare tactics of these types of shows. Based on the preview and the epilogue you’d think that they survived Everest and a coal mine collapse. And somehow it still felt very South Park, even with the departure from the sometimes predictable format of an episode. This wasn’t a self-consciously clever Community-like non sequitur, though. It was a believable South Park storyline restructured into a reality show format. “I Should Have Never Gone Ziplining” wasn’t a great episode, but the experimental narrative felt new and worthwhile.
The episode fell apart a bit when they went live-action for a few minutes. The actors were old. The voices were normal. The costumes were sort of right. And Kenny was basically just a stoner that we could understand. Granted it was for a reenactment, so the fact that everything was a little slowed and overacted was completely intentional. But it wasn’t funny, and it’s not the fault of the jokes. South Park-style writing divorced from the image and the voices that we’ve come to associate with each character just doesn’t work. The segment was unbearable and it almost felt like a homecoming when the episode switched back to cartoon format.
It’s worth stepping back once in a while to consider what we’re really looking for in a show that is in its 16th Season. More political insight? Poop jokes? Actual poop? Sex? Pop culture cameos? Institutional takedowns? The burden of a 16-year run and the expectations that come with that end up working against a show that can still pull out the stops once in a while with a truly great episode, joke, or call to reason. This week’s episode wasn’t that, but it was still fresh and inventive with a few good jokes, and makes me hopeful for what the rest of the season has in store.
Lindsey Bahr is a writer living in Chicago.