TV Review

More Exploding Diarrhoea from the States

If you haven’t yet seen South Park (Channel Four, Fridays) the chances are you will have read a TV review about it. At the risk of saturating the market, here’s another one.

For the uninitiated, South Park is the most recent in a series of “adult” cartoons designed for television, following on from programmes like BBC2’s Ren and Stimpey and Stressed Eric. It is about as far from Bugs Bunny or The Hair Bear Bunch as you are likely to get. It is violent, coarse, shocking and disturbing in almost equal measure. It is also-at least periodically-rather funny.

Based on school life in a town in Colorado it centres on the bizarre and deranged activities of four young elementary school kids, one of whom gets slaughtered in each episode, hence the show’s catchphrase “Oh my God! They killed Kenny!” The storyline material can be best illustrated with reference to an episode last month when a grandfather of one of the children begged his grandson to kill him and put him out of his 100 year long misery. When the kids decided to string up a cow from and tree and drop it on him (“it’ll look like an accident”) a passing cop in his patrol car stopped to see what was going on. When he saw that he’d disturbed the kids and that they were only trying to kill an old man his response was to tell them to carry on before he drove off.

This illustrates why South Park is one of those programmes you laugh at but then in many ways wish you hadn’t. The effect is similar to laughing at one of Bernard Manning’s better jokes-profoundly unsettling. And every now and then one of the characters will berate another one by telling him he’s “an asshole” because his mother’s “a fucking Jew”. There is an underlying comic subtext to this-such comments are invariably apropos of nothing and designed to show how children (often mistakenly) pick up and use the language of the adults around them. Unfortunately, comic subtext is not always picked up by those watching, let alone those watching late night Channel Four (if in doubt try watching it with a group of young kids to witness the varying reactions and attitudes).

Help! Help! Here come the bores!

There are two standard reactions to phenomena like South Park. The first is the knee-jerk reactionary position of the Daily Mail and the so-called “moral majority”. This sees programmes like South Park as being part of some leftist plot to undermine decent family values, as the work of the devil himself, or even both. Their religious ravings notwithstanding, what escapes those promoting the conservative agenda is that to a large extent these programmes are reflecting what is already going on in society. A healthy society where peace and co-operation reigns is unlikely to produce programmes about young children murdering their grandparents. The sort of society that produces such programmes is a violent and sadistic one, plagued by division, suspicion and generation gaps. In other words, the sort of society that capitalism is.

The other standard reaction to South Park comes from the woolly liberals at the other end of capitalism’s political spectrum. If they see anything wrong or disturbing about such programmes they will justify them on the grounds that they are unlikely to do anybody any harm as they are only TV shows (hey, do you think all the kids are going to go around killing their grandparents now or something?). This is a simplistic view, typical of the left, which fails to understand the reciprocal and reinforcing nature of much of the material emanating from capitalism’s media. This is because while violent and anti-social TV programmes are a reflection of a violent and anti-social society, they are not merely a reflection of this as they have an impact and impetus of their own. No materialist can seriously argue that children exposed to violence and murder on TV every day of their pre-adult lives are not going to be affected by it. They may not immediately go out and start killing old people, but they will have built up a tolerance to violence and a certain perception about how to solve problems that others will not. The economic foundations of capitalism provide the origins of most modern violence, but it is its political structure and media apparatus which provides much of the impetus.

In the episode of South Park already mentioned, Kenny-before he is murdered-contracts an extremely contagious case of “exploding diarrhoea”. Rarely in the history of television has a programme provided such a rich metaphor about its own origins in the jungle of market madness known as the USA, or about society’s future trajectory as it projects heap loads of shit all over the working class. Laugh? I nearly cried.


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