overthinking the idiot box

April 4th, 2005

South Park: Seasons 1-5

by Mike Celestino

The year was 1997. The season was summer. The channel was Comedy Central, a still-fledgling basic cable network anchored by bad eighties movies, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist and The Daily Show (then hosted by Craig Kilborn). The show was a crudely animated but uniquely hysterical and highly endearing adult cartoon created by two unknown twentysomethings from suburban Colorado. The rest is history.

South Park remains the highest-rated original series in Comedy Central's fifteen year history. While it's true that the show's popularity has waned since its infancy, fans that stuck it out past the show's early "fad" phase discovered that its social relevance and sheer comedic value only increased as its seasons passed.

Of course, the late nineties saw another phenomenon arise in the world of home entertainment: a new format for home video collectors, replacing the overpriced laserdiscs and obsolete VHS cassette tapes of years past. DVD offered a more affordable retail price with more available storage space than laserdiscs, as well as a far higher resolution image than VHS. By the time DVD really started to catch on, South Park was already a few seasons in. However, the show has the distinction of being one of the very first television series released on the format, with the first three collections of episodes coming out as early as October of 1998 on the Warner Brothers label.

From the beginning Warner took a fairly straightforward approach to releasing South Park on DVD. The first three discs included several episodes each with almost no real bonus content. This adequate yet unimpressive tradition continued for several years, but thankfully no episodes were omitted from these discs. Even the much-maligned April Fool's Day episode "Terrance and Philip in Asses of Fire" made it onto volume four as an unadvertised bonus. Then, when the DVD series approached the end of the show's second season, things took a turn for the worse. After volume six came out in December of 1999, Warner began issuing unpredictably-paced releases of single-disc "best of" collections, leaving fans frustrated and confused. Though South Park isn't necessarily known for its ongoing storylines, the show is undeniably better enjoyed in its original airing order, especially considering its occasional bursts of continuity such as the series-spanning character arc concerning Mr. Garrison's sexual confusion.

It wasn't until almost two years later that Warner buckled under the pressure and started to steadily release box sets of each complete season of South Park. Sadly, the first such set was riddled with controversy. The show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had recorded episode-length commentary for each episode in this set. When Warner threatened to edit the commentaries for (according to Stone) "standards issues," the boys pulled their tracks from the release and instead decided to offer the unedited versions on audio CD via a free online mail-in order. This debacle also led Parker and Stone to decline recording commentaries at all for the second season release, which popped up six months later.

Things looked somewhat grim for South Park fans who wanted more insight into their favorite show. Despite the fact that they could now look forward to regular releases of full seasons with scattered bonus features such as the behind-the-scenes documentary "Goin' Down to South Park" and the odd tidbit or music video here and there, it seemed as though no more commentaries would be included in these sets. Which brings me to perhaps the most innovative aspect of subsequent releases: Commentary Mini.

When South Park's complete third season showed up on DVD in December of 2003 from Paramount instead of Warner, fans were treated to newly-recorded mini-commentaries over the first three to five minutes of each episode. Parker and Stone justify the change by explaining that they find the bulk of most directors' (or otherwise) commentaries to be filler. Therefore, they prefer to say the few short remarks they have about each episode and then move on. This technique works pretty well, considering that participants in commentaries on other animated series such as The Simpsons and Futurama seem to run out of things to say about halfway through any given episode. Irreverent as usual, on these abbreviated tracks Matt and Trey avoid going off on long tangents and pretty much stick to the basics: what inspired each individual episode, comments about guest stars, and a few scattered backstage anecdotes. Despite its much shorter length, Commentary Mini turns out to be very informative and is most definitely a welcome addition to these sets.

As far as packaging goes South Park has been relegated to that same annoying fold-out cardboard that plagues The Simpsons box sets. More desirable would be Futurama and Family Guy's style of individual slip cases for each disc. This is a small price to pay however, and it's worth it to fans just to have all these episodes at our fingertips.

South Park is currently in its ninth season on Comedy Central, where new episodes air Wednesdays at 10:00 PM. Paramount recently released the show's fifth season on DVD and looks to be continuing the trend of putting them out about every six months or so. Also available on DVD is the 1999 feature film South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut.

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