As I noted during my reviews of some DVDs released in 2000, I initially liked South Park a lot when it hit back in 1997, but the show’s quality seemed to quickly decline; I recall that it appeared to hit the wall badly in the spring of 1998, and at that time, I largely stopped watching it. I gave up the ghost for good no later than the spring of 1999, if for no other reason than I dropped my cable connection.
So has the situation remained for the last two and a half years? I saw 1999’s theatrical release of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and rather enjoyed it, and I also thought the episodes on the two 2000 DVDs I reviewed were pretty good. However, none of this was enough to sway me to part with the money to renew my cable channels; I spend so much time with DVDs that I definitely don’t need to spend $40 a month for more TV.
As such, it looks like these periodic DVD compilations of South Park episodes will have to remain my only contact with the show. Despite fan complaints, Warner Bros. continues to release nothing other than package discs; many folks would like to see full season sets ala that of The Simpsons, but their pleas have gone unanswered.
In Warner’s possible defense, they’ve stated that the decision isn’t theirs; they’ve indicated that Comedy Central, the cable channel that airs South Park, dictates the “best of” format. That doesn’t explain the “greatest hits” nature of the Friends DVDs, but it’s their story and they’re sticking with it.
Whatever the case may be, I admit I’m not personally disenchanted with the format of the South Park sets just because I’m not a big enough fan to want full seasons. Selfishly, I don’t like those packages for most shows due to the fact they’re a bear to review. Sure, I was delighted to get the first season of The Simpsons, but it’s my all-time favorite show. I’ve avoided series like The X-Files simply because I can’t stomach the thought of having to spend more than 20 hours with it just to write one crummy article. For better or for worse, the smaller packages are much easier to digest for your friendly neighborhood reviewer.
That said, I definitely endorse the full season sets and think they’re the way to go. Sure, they’ll mean fewer reviews from yours truly, but they clearly make the fans happier, and I believe they sell better as well. I suppose that theory may get something of a test soon. After Paramount put out Star Trek: The Original Series two episodes per DVD, they’ll alter that formula for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Apparently that series will come as full season packages. No, sales comparisons won’t be totally valid, as they are two totally different shows, but it’ll be interesting to see if ST:TNG’s full season boxes outsell the dribs and drabs approach of ST:TOS.
In any case, all we currently have for South Park are some themed discs, and just in time for the holidays we get Winter Wonderland. Unlike 2000’s Christmas In South Park, the emphasis isn’t solely on that biggest of holidays. Heck, only there of the four shows actually have anything to do with winter; the final one - “Something to Do With Your Finger” - seems totally unrelated to the season.
However, the other three maintain connections to that time of year. The first is the most recent, and it covers Christmas. December 2000’s “A Very Crappy Christmas” finds the burg of South Park without the spirit of the holiday. Mr. Hankey doesn’t make his annual appearance, which sends Kyle and the other kids into the sewer to find him. There they discover Mr. Hankey with his drunkard wife and three kids, and they get him to increase his efforts to renew interest in the occasion. Along with the South Park kids, they plan to do so via a special animated film called “The Spirit Of Christmas”. The boys will create it while Mr. Hankey and clan will revitalize the town’s drive-in movie theater for a special showing.
The big day comes and… kerplonk. The equipment fails and though briefly excited, the town re-enters their doldrums. However, Cornwallis, one of Mr. Hankey’s boys who also went through a crisis of spirit, finds a way to fix the projector, and eventually the citizens of South Park remember the true meaning of Christmas: to spend lots of money on presents.
Called “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Jesus”, the next episode most clearly comes from a certain time period, since it finds everyone in the midst of Millennium Fever. Broadcast in December 1999, the year 2000 will soon be upon us, and folks are gearing up for the big occasion. Coincident with the date, Cartman seems to be going through puberty; he’s sure of this because he’s bleeding from his ass, which he thinks signifies he’s gotten his period. Being the jerk that he is, he lords his alleged maturity over the other boys, at least until Kenny starts to bleed as well; at that time, they become their own little “mature boys” clique. Eager to fit in, Kyle lies and claims he’s gotten his period, while Stan takes hormones to advance his entry into manhood.
Stan goes through a crisis of faith, as he’s sure his problems stem from an uncaring God. Jesus - a resident of South Park - has some of his own issues, and all of this builds to a climax at a special celebration in Las Vegas organized by Jesus. Featuring entertainment from a seriously over the hill Rod Stewart, the evening climaxes with an appearance from God himself, who will answer one question before he goes back into hiding for another 2000 years. Some truths emerge, but not necessarily those desired by the amassed throngs.
Although these first two shows clearly take place in the winter - last time I looked, Christmas and New Year’s couldn’t happen any other time of year - the third episode features a more tenuous connection to the season. Entitled “Cartman’s Silly Hate Crime”, the only attachment to winter comes from some sledding. However, since it’s apparently always snowy and cold in South Park, this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with winter.
In any case, the show from April 2000 partially revolves around some sledding competitions. The team of Cartman, Kyle, Stan and Kenny always wins because of Cartman’s weight, and they’re confident they’ll take the trophy when challenged by a group of girls. However, Cartman spews some nastiness toward Token, the sole black student of South Park Elementary, and the authorities lock him up as the perpetrator of a hate crime. The rest of the episode follows his experiences in juvie prison, while the other boys attempt to free him so he can anchor their sled.
Lastly, the final show seems to have absolutely nothing to do with winter. From July 2000, “Something to Do With Your Finger” finds Cartman with a dream - literally. During his sleep, he gets the inspiration to form a boy band named Fingerbang and make millions off of a song of the same name. The other kids resist the idea but eventually Cartman convinces them to do it, though he has to make some concessions along the way; he very reluctantly agrees to take Wendy - a girl - into the group as its fifth member since all boy bands have to have five participants, and she’s the only prospective singer who could perform respectably.
From there, they rehearse and try to get a gig at the local shopping center. This is tough going, however, due to confused opposition from the mall’s manager. In addition, Stan’s father strongly opposes his son’s participation in the group for his own mysterious reasons. Even though Fingerbang lands a show at the mall, their success becomes endangered when Stan’s dad refuses to let him go to it.
While none of these four shows tempted me to renew my cable subscription, I thought they seemed generally clever and entertaining. “Crappy” was probably the best of the bunch, if just because it found some very witty ways to spoof various subjects. When Mr. Hankey confronted his son’s concerns, he did so through a musical number baldly based on The Lion King’s “Circle of Life”. As seen during the theatrical movie, the South Park crew absolutely excel at musical parodies, and this one was no exception; they nailed the project.
In addition, another spoof took on a more obscure subject. I don’t know if it still airs widely, but I strongly recall a Rankin-Bass animated special from the Seventies called ’Twas the Night Before Christmas that featured George Gobel as Father Mouse. His brainy and nerdy son Albert ruined the holiday because he sent a letter to Santa that essentially told St. Nick to go elf himself. When Albert learns that his intentions were way off base, he fixes a special clock intended to alert Santa that the town really loves him despite the contents of the letter.
Clearly the movie theater aspect of “Crappy” takes from this concept, and the show also includes a nice little parody of a ’Twas tune called “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand”. The Lion King spoof was fun because it came in an unexpected place; the movie may be awfully famous, but one doesn’t anticipate a connection to it in a Christmas show. Obviously, segments that mock a yuletide program were more logical, but “Crappy” earned points through the use of a somewhat obscure inspiration. “Crappy” seemed like very good South Park.
The other three appeared less consistent. “God” suffered a little from the series’ biggest bugaboo: excessively gross content. Sometimes the program could be too disgusting for its own good, and “God” flirted with that. Ironically, the only thing that kept it from becoming nasty just for the sake of nastiness came from something unusual for South Park: a somewhat helpful message. The show usually worked overtime to avoid any form of useful points, and while “God” didn’t overtly attempt a message, it seemed to provide the concept that kids shouldn’t always believe the common scuttlebutt on the playground, for those sources may be seriously misinformed.
Not that this means “God” was a message-oriented show; it just seemed a little more proactive in that regard than usual. Otherwise, it was a reasonably amusing entry, but nothing special. The only elements that really appeared funny were those with an elderly Rod Stewart. Yes, the concept of the aging rocker as a wheelchair-bound fogy got tiresome years ago, but Rod - who’s most definitely not voiced by the real singer, who probably didn’t find this spoof to be terribly funny - got some perversely witty lines that made his segments hilarious.
“Hate Crime” probably offered the least memorable experience of the four shows. I say that because as I write this, I watched the DVD six days earlier, and I’m having a hard time remembering any especially interesting moments. Wait - I liked the bits in which childish cruelty was mocked. It seems that schoolyards must have a fat kid to torment, and with Cartman in prison, another boy got stuck with that mantle. Of course, no one considered him to be fat before Cartman left, and he lost that discriminatory distinction as soon as Cartman returned, which made the absurd meanness of the experience that much funnier.
Otherwise, “Hate Crime” seemed like somewhat pedestrian South Park. It made some good points about the stupidity of certain legislation, but it failed to become anything terribly special.
Of the four shows on this DVD, “Finger” probably will age the worst, as its emphasis on the recent crop of boy bands such as ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys clearly centers it in the current era. Sure, “God” was even more specific about its period; it focused on a particular date. However, that program didn’t deal with any kind of era-specific cultural phenomenon, which differentiated it from “Finger”.
This episode seemed reasonably entertaining, but it also felt a little behind the curve. So many other spoofs of boy bands have occurred that they’ve lost a great deal of their luster. Heck, these groups already seemed like little more than self-parodies anyway, so there wasn’t a lot of room for development, and the many satires did the job just as well as South Park; even a piece of junk like Josie and the Pussycats nailed a mockery of the genre.
Granted, it may not be fair to state that “Finger” is “behind the curve” since it obviously wasn’t created recently. The show aired in July 2000, which made it a little more innovative at the time. However, this still was a worn-out subject even then, so the show’s crew loses some points for taking on such an obvious and easy target.
Nonetheless, boy band spoofs are hard to dislike, and this one covered the subject fairly well. In addition, it let the South Park guys write their own boy band hit, and “Fingerbang” was a reasonably witty send-up of the typical tune. The show wasn’t as creative and clever as one might expect, but it still seemed entertaining.
Note: “Finger” offered my first encounter with the character of Timmy. Along with the release of Wonderland, WB put out a DVD of Timmy-related Park episodes. I haven’t screened that one yet, but I’m curious to do so. As I’ll note in that review, I had some confusing encounters with the character well before I knew who he was or anything else about him, so I’m very interested to find out more on that disc.
Another note: despite heightened sensitivities after September 11, one now-questionable line remained on the DVD. During “Finger”, a character referred to creating anthrax and spreading it. This ain’t quite so funny anymore, but I’m very pleased that excessive caution didn’t alter the piece.
South Park: Winter Wonderland 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. Prior DVDs didn’t look too hot, largely because of the moderately poor source material; South Park is supposed to appear cheap, which didn’t lend itself toward excellent visuals. While Wonderland maintained largely similar animation qualities, it nonetheless seemed to present a somewhat superior picture when compared to earlier South Park DVDs.
The episode that showed the biggest jump was “Crappy”. Of the four shows here, it was the only one to come from the program’s “fourth grade” season, and as touted on some ads, that year apparently did supply improved animation. As a whole, “Crappy” presented a clearer image, as it supplied greater definition and distinctly brighter and more vivid colors. It won’t give Disney a scare, but it was definitely the best-looking TV episode of South Park I’ve seen.
The three other shows came from older sources and they demonstrated additional problems. Sharpness looked a little fuzzy and indistinct at times, but for the most part, the shows presented acceptably crisp and detailed images. The episodes lacked great definition, but they rarely appeared excessively soft either; the program usually maintained a decent balance. 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 potential defects appeared.
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 on occasion. Nonetheless, they generally appeared reasonably tight, and represented a moderate increase in quality over 2000’s South Park DVDs. Black levels tended to be somewhat drab and gray, and shadow detail usually looked slightly too dark; low-light scenes could be a little hard to discern. Nonetheless, Winter Wonderland generally seemed fine, and I had few strong complaints about the presentation.
I felt similarly toward the Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of Winter Wonderland. The soundfield offered a modest spread to the audio, though as with the picture, “Crappy” differed from the other three programs. For that initial episode, I thought the music spread nicely to the sides and also offered reasonably good reinforcement from the rears, but the effects seemed to remain anchored in the center for the most part. The other three shows reversed this equation. While some stereo imaging appeared for the music, the songs and score appeared more centered, whereas the effects broadened to the sides decently to create a fairly useful atmosphere. The differences weren’t extreme, for none of the episodes ever really kicked in with an active soundfield, but the variations existed nonetheless. In any case, the mixes appeared fairly subdued but were fine for this kind of material.
Audio quality sounded fairly good. During some of the older DVDs, dialogue could come across as somewhat edgy and rough, but those concerns didn’t appear here. Speech consistently seemed nicely natural and warm, and I heard no problems related to intelligibility or brittleness. Effects were clean and acceptably accurate, and music seemed clear and smooth with some pretty deep bass at times; during a few of the songs, the low end really kicked in nicely. Overall, the auditory experience of Winter Wonderland was nothing special, but it seemed more than acceptable for the program.
Although the picture and sound quality of Winter Wonderland modestly improved upon its predecessors, one area in which it declined related to supplements. The two 2000 volumes - Christmas In South Park and The Chef Experience - both included some decent extras. Unfortunately, Wonderland comes with virtually nothing. All we find is an ad that touts South Park and some other Comedy Central programming. It’s so weak that I acknowledge it as a bonus piece extremely grudgingly.
South Park: Winter Wonderland offered a reasonably solid collection of episodes from the series. They ran the gamut from very good to just decent, but all of them seemed entertaining and compelling for the most part; though South Park has more than its share of clunkers, none of them appeared on this DVD. The disc provided lackluster but fairly solid picture and sound, but it skimped on extras. I doubt that any of the shows on Wonderland will strongly entice new viewers, but current fans - even estranged ones such as myself - should get a kick out of it.