'South Park': TV's New Nightmare

uring the recent television ratings system debate, few wanted to tackle the thorny question: Wasn't it logical to assume that those in the television industry agitating for more raunch would finally get their way, thanks to a ratings system? Might not this proposed "solution" to the problems of rampant obscenities, sexual content, and violence actually... backfire?

Just turn on the idiot box these days. Already the evidence is in: With the ratings system in place, prime time television content is worse than ever. After the ratings went into effect this past January, sexual references and foul language increased somewhat, but this month the truly extreme cases of envelope-pushing content appeared. First came Fox's miniseries "Intensity." It was not only remarkably violent by television standards, but the network added insult to injury by giving it the relatively mild TV-14 rating when it clearly deserved the higher TV-MA.

Then, on August 13, Comedy Central launched its weekly animated cartoon series "South Park." I suppose the folks at the network will point out they gave the program the correct rating (TV-MA); that it's shown on cable (albeit basic cable); and that it's on at 10 p.m. Eastern time, well outside the family hour. So what. "South Park" is so offensive that it shouldn't have been made, period. It doesn't just push the envelope; it knocks it off the table.

"South Park" centers on four Colorado third-graders who, were they a few years older, might get along quite well with Beavis and Butt-head. The dialogue in the opening scene, in which the four wait for the school bus, sets the tone. "Goddamn it," exclaims Kyle, "my little brother's trying to follow me to school again." Another child, Cartman, snaps at the brother, "Go home, ya little dildo," to which Kyle responds, "Dude, don't call my little brother a dildo."

The conversation shifts to the more profound. Did space aliens insert a device in Cartman's rectum while he slept the previous night? Cartman insists it was a dream ( "Goddamn it, they didn't do anything to my ass!") but the others think it actually happened. Later, they are proven right, as indicated by the flames that shoot from Cartman's backside when he passes gas, something he proceeds to do again and again.

I kid you not.

The sordid business continues for the rest of the half-hour. There's the demise of Kenny, another of the kids, who's run over by a car, his corpse nibbled by rats; and a scene in which Kyle screams nine bleeped curses, two of them clearly the f-word. In fact, the episode contained thirty-two obscenities, which would be a staggering total for an installment of "NYPD Blue" (which is also twice as long). Certain epithets, like "bitch" and "bastard," are so common on prime time they've lost their punch. "South Park" makes the adjustment by inserting the heretofore taboo "goddamn" four times.

Just who are the (ahem) brains behind this effort? Meet Trey Parker and Matt Stone, men in their twenties whose emotional development apparently ceased in junior high. To give you an idea of the mentality of these wunderkinds, Stone related to the Los Angeles paper New Times how, as a grade-school student entered in an essay contest, he chose as his subject the person he most admired... Adolf Hitler. (Stone, by the way, is Jewish.) When the New Times reporter asked why, Stone pointed to his own "conviction and focus," adding this nonsensical non sequitur: "If something exists, you should be able to make fun of it."Irreverence has its place, and its limits. But this is not art, it's toxic sewage. And the toxic sewage of "South Park" is aimed at children. Pointing out that promos for the series appear as early as 5 p.m., Houston Chronicle TV critic Ann Hodges wisely notes, "Anywhere [on the schedule] you put it?a cartoon starring little kids is not likely to escape little-kid notice." Currently, two-thirds of American homes have basic cable, meaning the potential young audience for "South Park" is massive indeed - and that's a problem. There's simply no way that the executives at Comedy Central can deny they are polluting the minds of youngsters with this filth. It is what television has come to. It is what television was bound to come to because adults have sanctioned it through indifference. There is not one of us who escapes responsibility for this tragedy. It's going to get worse still. In the "South Park" pilot, Santa and Jesus get into a fistfight over which of them better represents the spirit of Christmas. Comedy Central says the episode will never air, but it's only a matter of time before that barrier falls, too. And maybe as we cross the bridge to the 21st century, there will be no cultural barriers left.