Vulture is holding the ultimate Sitcom Smackdown to determine the greatest TV comedy of the past 30 years. Each day, a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 18. Today’s battle: Julie Klausner judges Arrested Development versus South Park. Make sure to head over to Facebook to vote in our Readers Bracket. We also invite tweeted opinions with the #sitcomsmackdown hashtag.
I have volunteered to weigh three seasons of Arrested Development’s imperfect perfection against sixteen-and-counting seasons of South Park’s sloppy, anarchic brilliance. George Seurat next to Jackson Pollack. Ten minutes of meticulous, Sufjan Stevens–style orchestration against five hours of punk-rock improvising. A modern commedia dell’arte next to a really tight ASSSCAT. Two innovative shows so different — both such products of their processes and life spans — that the only way to pick a winner is to ignore their fundamental backgrounds. But I will not do that!
Let’s start with Arrested Development, which has that Anne Hathaway–Les Miz advantage of shining bright and burning out before it could overstay its welcome. (It ran from 2003 to 2006, though we still have the Netflix episodes to look forward to/be nervous about.) The show, which was created by Mitchell Hurwitz and executive-produced by Ron Howard (also each episode’s uncredited narrator), pioneered the whole comedy-series-shot-like-reality-TV thing, and its farcical, interlocking jokes were just as trailblazing. But the beauty of the gags and frills, its embellishments and callbacks (from the hand-eating seal, to the Blue Man Group makeup smeared on walls, to the Dangerous Cousins film) is that they weren’t making up for a lack of something; they enhanced the heart of the show. And there was a heart — or two, to be exact. For all its sketch-comedy-funny madness, Arrested Development still had “network-likable” Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) and his babe-in-the-woods son, George Michael (Michael Cera), at its center. Their respective Jesus-like tolerance of their family of narcissists, fools, and criminals was as profitable as “Bluth’s Original Frozen Banana Stand”: There is always money in the inherent absurdity of relatives — why are we loyal to people we’re chained to at random? — and to the moral turpitude only accessible via free will.
Like South Park, Arrested Development’s production is down and dirty; it never looks as Wes Anderson–mannered as its plots can sometimes feel. But plot wasn’t really the point. It was the jokes. Good Lord, those jokes. I’m not just talking about punch lines; as quotable as the quips can be (“It’s pronounced ah-NAL-rah-pist”), it’s those weird, glittering moments — each one a perfect pivot point on which to end a scene —that make me genuflect. Liza Minnelli as Lucille 2 (incomparable guest stars, too!) telling a room full of card queens to “take a powder” when Buster finally responds to her romantic overtures? Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walters) consistently breaking into a goofy grin at the realization that this, too, is Gene Parmesan? Or all of Jeffrey Tambor’s inspired grumbling as Michael’s bully of a father? (By transitioning from playing Larry Sanders’s punching-bag buffoon Hank Kingsley to George Bluth, Tambor executed TV’s most impressive low-to-high-status character leap — at least until Kathie Lee Gifford switched from taking noogies from Reeg to giving them to Hoda.) Hurwitz and his writers somehow wove that chaotic stack of canny instants into a stunningly funny whole. Such complexity was unprecedented, and only benefits from repeat viewings. You not only want to watch it again and again — you need to in order to catch every self-reference, every muttered Gob crack, every bit of Buster slapstick, every Michael reaction shot.
On the other side of the universe lives the rapturous blasphemy of South Park. I’ve loved this show since its first season, when I embarrassingly wrote co-creator Trey Parker love letters that included (CLOTHED) photos of myself, in hopes of one day being his sweetheart. It didn’t work.
I remember the originality and verve of the very first episode in 1997, and how impressed I was that Trey and Matt Stone came from nowhere — or, as we knew it during those AOL salad days, the Internet. But, also, when I say Matt and Trey came from nowhere, I mean they weren’t from accepted comedy breeding grounds, like the Groundlings or Harvard. They didn’t go to improv class, and they weren’t hanging around with any comedy clique. Their iconoclasm was, and still is, splattered all over the show like — dare I? They would, so very well — diarrhea around the inside of a toilet bowl. And as they’ve maintained the show, those two wunderkinds have managed to stay entirely true to their own credo of “no bullshit,” while continually searching for the next weird, gross, upsetting, outrageous, silly thing — real or imagined — that they can blow up for their next point of departure/no return.
I strongly recommend watching the 2011 documentary The Making of South Park: 6 Days to Air. In it, we learn that the show’s animators sleep under their desk until (1) Matt and Trey break a story in the writers’ room, and (2) Trey goes off to write the script himself. It’s a sweaty, messy process, and at one point, when a P.A. delivers Trey’s takeout dinner, which he’ll eat at his desk, you can practically smell the French fry grease mixing with his flop sweat. The stress is so palpable, in fact, that any joy they get from seeing their imperfect creation barely make it to air must, at times, feel not quite worth it. But it is. I swear it is. And anyway, would the resulting lunacy be as sublime or delirious or funny without the chaos? Who but an overworked, sleep-deprived soul could come up with “Sheening,” or Tom Cruise trapped in the Closet, or Killing Chef with his own words, or the inspired sadist Cartman serving Scott Teneman his own parents in chili form?
That completely messed-up “Scott Teneman Must Die” episode, from the fifth season, was, by the way, the first South Park episode that abandoned the traditional A story/B story/C story sitcom structure, and they haven’t looked back. I don’t think it hurts the show. Its storytelling is more of a quick dig straight across, with gems littering the path: weird sayings (“crème fraîche”), shocking stuff you can’t believe they got away with (Human CentiPad), and astute — yes, astute! — whacks at shit that’s going on in the world (“The F Word”). An excellent bonus about Matt and Trey: Unlike satirists Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, who preach to their own choir, the South Park voice is not only distinctive, it’s truly independent, pissing off liberals and conservatives alike. It’s a breath of Fresh Air that isn’t hosted by Terry Gross.
The flip side, of course, is that sometimes Trey’s last-minute scramble can just as easily undermine an episode. The pressure can alchemize into lazy targets or flabby story lines. South Park is fast, cheap, and out of control, whereas Arrested Development seems to have been entirely plotted out, from top to bottom, years in advance.
So here’s where I get to choose. Ugh. Okay. Is it a numbers game, weighing SP’s 237 flawed episodes against AD’s mere 53 to date? Is it about head over heart/heart over head? Polished over rough? Or is it because I was told that, were I to pick South Park as the winner, it would probably not increase my chances of making love to Trey Parker, even though I know I’d be really good at pleasing him? No. The answer, my friends, is blowing alternately hot and cool.
My admittedly entirely gut decision is to pick Arrested Development. With both shows I am impressed and delighted, but with AD, I am truly awestruck. The rhythm of the show is sublime; the layering as dense and satisfying as a galette des rois. It is a fucking masterpiece.
Winner: Arrested Development