Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: South Park: The Chef Experience (2000)
Studio Line: Warner Bros.

Chef reigns supreme in "Chef Aid," "Succubus," and "Rainforest Schmainforest," plus "Chef Aid: Behind the Menu" and the music video for "Chocolate Salty Balls."

Director: Trey Parker, Matt Stones
Cast: Trey Parker, Matt Stones, Isaac Hayes
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; no chapters; 93 min.; $19.98; street date 11/7/00.
Supplements: "Rainforest, Schmainforest" Bonus Episode; "Chocolate Salty Balls" Music Video.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/B-/C+

One never knows what form a career revival may take. For legendary musicians, they usually pick up again due to some sort of rediscovery by newer generations, whether through replays of their old material - as with Ben E. King's minor comeback when Stand By Me did well on movie screens - or via hot new songs, as was the case with Tina Turner's remarkable late career renaissance in the mid-Eighties.

Isaac Hayes took a different route. When a couple of wise-ass goofballs started a crudely animated show called South Park, they wanted a classic sexy soul singer to provide his voice, and Hayes was their first choice. Despite some apparent reservations, Hayes decided to give it a shot, and the rest is history: South Park became a huge success, and via his role as the lugubrious Chef, Hayes reached a completely new audience.

On a new DVD called South Park: The Chef Experience, Hayes receives his digital due through a series of shows that spotlight Chef. The main draw here is an episode called "Chef Aid", which first aired in October 1998. Ironically, I think this was the final episode of SP I watched before I bailed on the show. (See my review of Christmas In South Park if you're curious about my erratic interest in the program.) I didn't give up on SP because of this episode, though it may appear that way; no, it was a good show, but for some reason, I just didn't go back to it again.

In any case, "Chef Aid" provides possibly the most cameo-packed episode of SP to date. In this show, Chef loses a lawsuit about a song that was stolen from him and has to pay $2 million in damages. The boys learn of his deep associations with many rock stars, and they seek them luminaries out to ask them to financially help Chef. After a circuitous path, a big benefit concert occurs and everything works out fine.

Connected to this episode is "Chef Aid: Behind the Menu". A parody of VH1's "Behind the Music" series, this show combined a slew of live-action interview segments with actual rock stars like Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Joe Strummer amongst cartoon clips of Chef as he discusses his career and some shots from "Chef Aid". Apparently, this October 1998 broadcast wasn't considered a proper episode of SP and is instead a "special".

The final Chef-related piece on this DVD is "Succubus", an April 1999 show in which Chef meets the woman of his dreams and plans to marry her. However, the boys suspect something's wrong, but Chef won't listen to their pleas of reason and it takes drastic events for the kids to set everything right again.

Of the three shows, both "Succubus" and "Chef Aid" fall firmly in the "pretty good but not great" category. "Chef Aid" offers some solid mockery of both the music and legal business and specifically targets Johnnie Cochrane and Alanis Morissette for some prime ribbing. I didn't think the episode featured any terrific highlights, but it's a generally fun piece.

"Succubus" was also solid throughout the program, though it provided a few more memorable moments. I especially loved Chef's parents, who ramble on and on about their encounters with the Loch Ness Monster. (You'd have to watch the show to understand.) The remainder of the broadcast is fairly entertaining as well, but it was Chef's parents who made it a keeper.

Unfortunately, I felt much less positive about "Behind the Menu". Yes, "Behind the Music" is a target ripe for mockery, but this show doesn't do so effectively. Actually, "BT Menu" doesn't really try to use "BT Music's" predictable patterns; the latter always shows the artist's early years, moves into their salad days, covers the inevitable fall (or some underpublicized flaw for artists who've remained consistently successful like Madonna), and then finishes with their triumphant comeback, even when the person in question continues to suck it up but good (David Cassidy, anyone?).

"BT Menu" is just an excuse to show a lot of musicians as they tell phony stories about Chef's glories. As such, it seems fairly inane and pointless. "Chef Aid" itself featured more than enough of these moments, and the follow-up wears out the joke quickly. It didn't help that the show ended with a video for mega-annoying rapper Master P's "Kenny's Dead"; the clip - which includes a lot of new animation - is mildly entertaining, but the tune itself bites.

Despite that weak program, I enjoyed the other two shows on the DVD. "Chef Aid" is a fun and semi-affectionate look at rock clichés, and "Succubus" introduces two memorable new characters. They aren't two of the best SP episodes, but they seem to be above average.

The DVD:

South Park: The Chef Experience appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture seems generally acceptable, it appeared more drab than I expected based on viewings of other SP programs.

Sharpness looked fairly fuzzy and indistinct much of the time. SP never seemed terribly sharp, but it rarely appeared excessively soft either; the program usually maintained a moderately decent balance, though it seemed hazier than I'd like. Moiré effects occurred on a few occasions, but jagged edges were a more significant problem; many curved lines came across as excessively distorted in that manner. I think a lot of these concerns stemmed from the limitations of the original material, but I still found the "jaggies" distracting nonetheless. The shows displayed no flaws such as distortions of the image otherwise. I assume the programs came from videotape, so normal print concerns like grain or grit wouldn't be an issue, and no other possible defects appear.

Colors were somewhat bland but also represented the program as created. Hues came across as a bit heavy at times, and they seemed vaguely noisy. Black levels tended to be somewhat drab and gray, and shadow detail usually looked slightly too dark; low-light scenes such as those in bedrooms were rather hard to discern.

Although a lot of the problems resulted from the limitations of the source material, some didn't seem connected to that. I found the image on this DVD to look noticeably fuzzier than that on another concurrent SP release, Christmas In South Park. Had some of the episodes come from early in the show's run, I might understand this difference, but all are from roughly the same era; there's no significant difference in broadcast dates. As such, I can't account for the differences. Ultimately, The Chef Experience remained watchable but the image looked less lively than it should have.

The show's Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack sounded decent but unexceptional. The soundfield offered a modest spread to the audio. Most of the material stayed within the front spectrum, where I heard mild use of directional effects and some decent stereo music, though voices seemed to almost always stay in the center. Audio moved adequately across channels as well, though there's not a great deal of panning or directional sound apparent. The surrounds mainly added some light ambiance that reinforced the music and effects; it gave me a decent impression but didn't contribute much to the experience.

Audio quality appeared good but unspectacular. The vast majority of speech sounded natural and distinct, and the lines blended well with the action. Effects were clean and acceptably accurate, and music seemed clear and smooth with moderate but decent bass heard at times. Unlike the South Park movie, the TV shows don't offer very strong sound, but they appeared good enough for such material. Again, the quality of this DVD seemed slightly worse than that of its sister release, Christmas.. The audio was of similar scope but for some reason, the sound seemed slightly less lively on Chef; for the most part, the two were essentially equal, but I thought the holiday DVD offered somewhat more effective sound.

The Chef Experience includes two extras. The better and more significant of these is another episode of SP. We find "Rainforest, Schmainforest", a broadcast from April 1999 that guest starred Jennifer Aniston. Although it's just a "toss-in", this show is the best found on the DVD. It provides a slew of deft and witty jabs at a number of subjects, but mainly focuses on self-righteous "save the earth" do-gooder sorts. Aniston foes a great job in her role and it's a thoroughly terrific episode.

In addition, we get a music video for Chef's "Chocolate Salty Balls". The tune is mildly amusing but gets old pretty quickly; how many times can "suck my chocolate balls" continue to seem funny? The answer is "many fewer than we hear during this song". Still, it's a nice addition to the DVD. By the way, if you ever meet any snooty English folks who look down upon American society, please remind them that the single of "Chocolate Salty Balls" went to number one in the UK.

Well, at least Isaac Hayes got to top the charts again, even if it was only in cartoon form. South Park: The Chef Experience focuses on everyone's favorite soul-singing hash slinger through two very good episodes of the animated show plus one fairly lame spoof of VH1's "Behind the Music" series. The DVD presents acceptably though slightly flawed (compared to other SP packages) picture and sound plus a terrific "bonus" episode and a silly music video. Of the two simultaneously-released SP DVDs, I preferred Christmas In South Park, but The Chef Experience offers a lot of fun as well and will be enjoyed by fans of the series.

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