Archive for November, 2011

November 20, 2011

The Rise of Butters

South Park‘s “City Sushi” of Season 15 is a true “Butters episode,” featuring said character at his quintessential best.  He, innocently enough, opens the show working as a flyer distributor for the new local sushi place.  The Chinese owner of City Wok is outraged because the Japanese are cutting in on his territory, just like they’ve continuously done throughout history.  An Asian turf war breaks out and the authorities believe Butters is involved.  Upon examining him, the psychologist says Butters suffers from multiple personality disorder, but what he offers in support of this diagnosis makes it clear to viewers that the doctor is simply observing Butters’ incredibly creative and playful mind.  These “personalities” are simply characters that he has created so as to entertain himself while being drastically sheltered by his parents, who proclaim themselves to be “awesome.”  Once again, Butters finds himself surrounded by people, usually adults, who drag him into a situation of some peril.  Sure, Butters suffers from a bit of extreme naivete, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made efforts to develop very subtle layers to Butters, as he has emerged into a more (ironically) perceptive, less reserved staple of the show.

Early on, Butters was not as prolific and was inserted into spot episodes as an easy target of ridicule for the cast mainstays and audience alike.  In the second half of Season 4 (2000), Butters briefly appears in “4th Grade.”  On behalf of their peers, the core four decide to pull a prank on their new teacher to establish their dominance in the classroom.  They propose the act of pulling down their pants while shouting “Kiss my ass!”  Butters asks for clarification.  “Should we stand front ways or back?” he stutters.  “Do we show our behinds or our weiners?”  Surprised at the lack of thought behind the question, Stan stares, pauses and deadpanly explains that showing their asses would be “sufficient.”  Such scenes were the norm for poor Butters, the mere fringe character.

Butters would become more prevalent by the end of the 5th season though, when he was the focal point of the aptly, humorously entitled “Butters’ Very Own Episode.”  This is when the audience would become more in tune with what makes Butters tick.  Setting up his increased role in the next season as the possible replacement of Kenny as the fourth friend, Parker and Stone take viewers into the Scotch household-a pretty terrifying place.  Like in the aforementioned “City Sushi” episode, Butters is asked to be involved in some unsavory activity.  Looking to please his mother, he complies to spying on his dad, only to unknowingly reveal his father’s secret gay life.  Mrs. Scotch snaps and decides that the only way to protect her son from the impurities of a life with a homosexual for a father is to kill Butters.  He survives and by the end of the show lectures his parents about the pitfalls of lying.

By the time he creates his alter-ego, “Professor Chaos,” Butters has suffered many-a-pangs at the hands of Stan, Kyle, and Cartman, while serving as their stand-in friend.  Finally, after an ultimate rejection as their confidant, Butters becomes the super villain, looking to create displeasure for anyone in his presence.  Sure he only performs crimes against others that are more cute than harmful, like swapping people’s soups at Bennigan’s, but this is a turning point for Butters as he would come to assert himself amongst the group more and more.

Of late, Butters has been increasingly vocal and, dare I say, confident in his voice.  By the premiere of the current Season 15, “HumancentiPad,” viewers behold him actually pointing out a poor choice on Kyle’s part to accept, without reading, the exceptionally verbose agreement between Apple and their users of the frequently updated ITunes application.  It is Butters, of all people, who calls into question Stan’s defense of the entrapped Kyle.  After reading aloud the portion of the agreement that clearly indicates that Kyle had agreed to be a part of the Apple experiment in which Kyle’s face would be sewn to the rear end of another user, Butters slowly, moves his mouse into place and  sarcastically enunciates, “Yeah, I’m going to click…’Decline.'”  In “The Last of the Meheecans,” Butters is the unheralded hero.  After (once again innocently) becoming a recognizable symbol of Mexican pride in the neighboring country, the gang fail to be aware of his leadership capabilities and refuse to appoint him head-Mexican should they once again play “Texans vs. Mexicans.”  With dramatic irony at work, Butters simply raises his arms, thus manipulating the native Mexicans into a chant for their new idol, a chant that can be heard all the way to Colorado.  And at the end of “City Sushi,” Butters is again the hero, having unmasked Janus and put an end to his Japanese brand of terror in South Park.  During the course of the episode, Butters is literally pissed on by Janus, who was pretending to be his therapist, while he slept.  It is as though Parker and Stone created a visual reminder of what had been happening to Butters throughout his tenure on the show, while, at the same time, pointing out the new irony present in his character, having become smarter, stronger, and more assertive.  It will be interesting to see how many more times the creators of South Park use Butters as a purveyor of keen perception, while trumping Stan and Kyle’s level of cognizance and intelligence.

November 12, 2011

“Seinfeld” Scores a Bull’s-Eye

To begin simply, Seinfeld is one of the best television shows of all time, regardless of genre.  And it would be hard to argue against anyone who ranks it at the very top of such a list.  The innumerable Seinfeldisms have been well-documented: “double-dipping,” “re-gifting,” “close-talker,” and so on and so forth.  Multiple networks still constantly air reruns, and we’re grateful for that because it’s still better than anything else on (Can it be over 13 years since the last new episode?).  This brand of success is attributed to the very plain fact that bazillions of people can relate to the content, just like any form of entertainment that garners such mass appeal, coinciding with overwhelming critical applause.  I present to you a new way to quantify that show’s ability to attract such a dynamic audience with the use of New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix.”

I’d guess that anybody who picks up a hard copy of New York Magazine, and is familiar with its typical layout, will inevitably make a concerted effort to peruse the final page.  The Approval Matrix is the staff’s way of creating a “deliberately oversimplified guide to who falls where on [their] taste hierarchies” and is divided into quadrants rating what is despicable vs. brilliant vs. highbrow vs. lowbrow in all that is that edition’s week in pop culture.  Should a (drunken?) person view The Approval Matrix as a dartboard, Seinfeld, the series as a whole, scores a bull’s-eye.

What all-time great sitcoms are in the discussion with Seinfeld?  The Simpsons?  With only winks at highbrow humor (Mayor Quimby appearances, Lisa’s storylines), The Simpsons relies most often on lowbrow/despicable humor.  The Cosby Show was a huge hit in the 1980s.  Focusing on an upper-middle class, highly-functional African American family, the series was very funny, even wry, and can only be considered highbrow and brilliant.  All in the Family‘s (1968-79) reputation was founded upon its lowbrow, newly-shocking, and bigoted main character.  I Love Lucy?  The Honeymooners?  It’s hard to compare those shows with anything as contemporary as Seinfeld and The Simpsons because, considering the era in which they aired, those creative energies could never have flowed towards anything as lowbrow as what has been looked to for laughs in recent years.

Seinfeld contrasts with all of them, and any other, because the series possesses individual episodes that can be sprayed across the entire Approval Matrix.  “The Chinese Restaurant” is considered one of their early classics, the quintessential episode “about nothing.”  Highbrow and Brilliant.  “The Finale,” when the gang are sentenced to prison for breaking the “Good Samaritan law,” pokes fun at legislation and the judicial system, but the inciting incident finds them guffawing at a fat guy.  Highbrow and Despicable.  “The Soup Nazi” must be in the Lowbrow hemisphere.  With the term “Nazi” bouncing around like a mid-rally squash ball, one might be inclined to label that episode Despicable.  But with Elaine enacting revenge upon the unsympathetic title character, a deviation to the right is required.  Lowbrow and Brilliant.  Few things ever witnessed are as Lowbrow and Despicable as “The Contest.”  In so many ways it’s Brilliant, but, towards the episode’s conclusion, Marla points out that she doesn’t want “anything to do with” Elaine, Jerry, or their “perverted friends.”  Few beings can recognize corruption like a virgin.  “The Opera“- Highbrow/Brilliant; “The Junior Mint“- Highbrow/Despicable; “The Smelly Car“- Lowbrow/Brilliant; “The Bubble Boy“- Lowbrow/Despicable.  (Keep it going in the comments section!)

With all that said, Seinfeld, the complete series, is then none of these designations.  It falls right in the middle of New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix, some unknown land of limitless advertising revenue possibilities.