I've always felt that the problem with "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone isn't that their animated Comedy Central show is obscene, offensive, inappropriate, or immature, as naysayers have been naysaying since it premiered in 1997. It's that Parker and Stone seem to be so friggin' lazy.
They took an inherently anarchic and lowbrow concept--four poorly animated, foul-mouthed 8-year-olds trying to deal with the wigged-out adult world--and hammered it into something formulaic and predictable in no time flat. Catch phrases and the same crusty plot (a larger-than-life menace--killer turkeys, a Godzilla-sized Barbra Streisand, a freakish genetic clone--takes the boys' Colorado town over and threatens to destroy it) were being recycled repeatedly before the first season ended. By the time Parker and Stone worked out their creative stumbling blocks and started churning out half-decent episodes in season three (in particular, the Emmy-nominated "Chinpoko Mon," a fabulous dressing-down of annoying toy fads and absurdly reflexive consumerism) viewers had abandoned "South Park" in droves.
I suppose Parker and Stone didn't get the positive reinforcement they needed to continue making lively comedy for cable; after all, "South Park" was most popular when it was most predictable. Which goes a long way toward explaining the mess that is their much-hyped first live-action series for television, "That's My Bush!"
In case you're not in the loop, I'll break it down for you: Before the presidential election last November, Comedy Central announced that Parker and Stone were making a new series--a parody of the situation-comedy format based on the outcome of the election, building the new show around whomever ended up in the White House. Because the election results were delayed, the show, then called "Family First", was put on hold. Nevertheless, Parker's and Stone's characteristic laziness was once again evident: The new series would not only function, in the interest of parody, as a rote sitcom (thus providing the show with a formula) but the show's creators would rely on current events to generate content.
In the meantime, Parker and Stone revealed some interesting but not surprising things in interviews. They claimed they were counting on Al Gore to win the presidential election, figuring he was naturally a better target for comedy. (Most other topical-humor sources--late-night talk show hosts, the "Saturday Night Live" crew--were saying just the opposite.) During the Florida recount mess they back-pedaled and told Salon.com that either president would probably turn out to be pretty hilarious, but even then the duo couldn't resist revealing their preferences. "They're both such big dorks, but Gore is just the biggest dork in the world," Parker said.
This doesn't necessarily mean Parker and Stone are card-carrying Republicans (they also told Salon.com that they didn't vote in the presidential election), but it does show them to be a bit disingenuous in presenting themselves, as they so strenuously do, as equal-opportunity offenders. Their comedy posits that everyone is ridiculous, but one side--the left side--is always presented as a little more absurd, a little sillier for caring about the things it cares about. "South Park" has always reflected this: Witness its frequent jabs at single mothers, environmentalism, and other liberal sacred cow, or its Florida-recount and Elián Gonzalez parodies, produced almost as soon as the actual events ended and always from the vantage point of conservative outrage. This agenda isn't by itself a bad thing--everyone's entitled to their opinion. What's annoying about Parker and Stone's work is that they're too noncommittal to cop to their own politics.
In the two episodes I've seen, "That's My Bush!" pretty much confirms my suspicions. Sure, George W. Bush, as embodied by Timothy Bottoms (who played vacant juvenile Sonny in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show in 1971), is a complete dolt, but he's a lovable, Homer Simpson-like dolt. He's constantly ranked on by wife, Laura ("You may be a bad president, but you're an OK husband sometimes," quips the cold-comforting First Lady, played by Carrie Quinn Dolin), his staff, and even the White House's wisecracking maid (Marcia Wallace, of "The Simpsons" and "The Bob Newhart Show").
So far, so sitcomish. But "That's My Bush!" also, and pointedly, reserves its greatest ridicule for liberal causes. In the first episode, Bush, "the uniter," hosts a White House dinner to bring pro-choice and pro-life leaders together. The folks on both sides of the issue are portrayed, predictably, as freaks: The pro-choice leader is a blustery killjoy who doesn't seem to be of a sexual orientation that's conducive to generating many unwanted pregnancies; her counterpart is a deformed fetus that survived an abortion attempt 30 years ago but hasn't grown any. Parker and Stone, playing their self-assigned role as apolitical scamps, frame the abortion debate as a screaming match between an almost-aborted puppet embryo and a bulldozing dyke, but even within this absurdity the sides taken are pretty clear. The pro-choicer is the demeaning stereotype most likely to spring from a conservative's imagination (pro-choice=feminist=man-hating dyke); the fetus is, in its own warped way, an ideal spokesperson for the pro-life cause. (The second episode plays the death penalty for similar yuks, treating a post-execution Bush epiphany that "killin' is wrong" as a big fat joke.)
As tasteless and, in some instances, baldly partisan as the show is, the creators' political leanings aren't really what sinks "Bush!" Any ideology is better than no ideology at all, particularly in the cable wasteland. It's the show's structure as a sitcom parody and its shrill, souped-up tone that really grates. Recontextualizing old, clichéd sitcom dross to make fun of the genre may seem postmodern and ironic, but it still means that the bulk of the show consists of intentionally unfunny setups and predictable one-liners. Yawn. Is it really news to anybody that the sitcom is a tired, stale form of televised entertainment? Do we really need another annoying showcase for nudging allusions to old shows?
Besides, didn't Parker and Stone get the memo? Cynical postmodernism and smirking irony are, like, so over.
"That's My Bush!"
Comedy Central, Wednesdays 10:30 p.m.