Tuned In

South Park Watch: What the [BEEEEEEEEEP]?

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“201,” the conclusion to South Park‘s two-part 200th-episode celebration, aired last night, and it was an improvement on an already very entertaining first half. Or at least the parts we were able to see and hear were.

The first half, as you’ll recall, spoofed the show’s earlier run-in with a nervous network by returning the character of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, who Comedy Central refused to let the show depict out of concern over violating religious taboos. (Though the comedy depicted the prophet in 2001 without incident.)

“201” took that meta-parody further, though it’s hard to tell how much was by design and how much was forced on Trey Parker and Matt Stone. A statement at the South Park Studios website says that, after delivery of the episode, the network added additional bleeps to “201,” and that Parker and Stone do not yet have network permission to stream the uncensored version. [Update: The New York Times Artsbeat blog has more information on the network bleeping and the threat that appears to have prompted it.]

But it’s not entirely clear to the viewer which censoring was the writer’s satirical work and which was actual after-the-fact network censorship. In addition to hiding Muhammad’s figure (this time with a “CENSORED” bar), this episode (unlike “200”) also bleeped his name. Also, the trademark “what we learned speech(es) at the end of the episode were entirely bleeped (such a long stretch of censorship that I’m guessing the writers used it deliberately for effect). [Update 2: In fact, according to Parker and Stone, every bleep in the episode, including the comically massive ones, were added by the network. Which sort of makes me want to see them do a Muhammad episode every week until the network gets some stones.]

The lesson of the episode: whether for religious figures or celebrities, there is no such thing as a magical immunity to ridicule or criticism, only arbitrary and needless restrictions that we impose, often inconsistently and out of fear rather than respect.

At least I’m guessing that was the lesson, if we could have heard it.

Like last week, however, the strongest part of the episode was that focused on Cartman and his right-hand, or actually left-hand, man, Mitch Conner, who gave us something of his own background in a pitch-perfect parody of a Vietnam-movie flashback. And the episode climaxed with a callback to what I would have to rank as the best South Park episode of all time, “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” in which Cartman had forced a rival to eat a bowl of chili made from the flesh of his dead parents. Said Cartman’s now-insane tormentor, “Revenge is a dish best served—chili!”

“200” and “201” weren’t in the league of “Scott Tenorman,” nor could we expect them to be. But at best they were a reminder that, like Tenorman, South Park never forgets an insult.