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Blu-ray Roundup: SOUTH PARK – THE COMPLETE FIFTEENTH SEASON Finds Genius Barely Outweighing the Dreck

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The centerpiece of the new “South Park: The Complete Fifteenth Season” set is a forty-two-minute documentary called “Six Days to Air: The Making of South Park.”  Using the season’s opener—the brutally satirical “Human Cent-iPad”—as a template, the feature details the process that “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone go through every week during production.  Each episode comes out just under the wire, with changes and revisions occurring hours from the studio deadline; as Stone comments in the documentary, “At first, it was, ‘I can’t believe we finished that episode in two weeks.’ Then, it was ten days, and then seven, and now we’re at this pace.”

More than anything, the six-day schedule offers greater clarity into “South Park’s” increasingly variable quality.  When Stone and Parker hit upon a good idea, it emerges with a gonzo frenzy; on the flip side, you can always tell when the writing staff was struggling the week prior because the jokes are more one-note, and the pacing isn’t as tight.

I’m not sure which method is best.  The series’ first six (maybe seven) years were amazingly consistent; you’d get fewer clunkers like this season’s “Royal Pudding” or the atrocious “A History Channel Thanksgiving.”  However, Trey and Matt also didn’t deliver anything as Swiftian in its satire as the aforementioned “Human Cent-iPad” or “Crack Baby Athletic Association.”  That mania can’t be controlled, and a good part of me respects the pair for going all-or-nothing in their comedy stylings.

Yet “all-or-nothing” also has its predictable rhythms.  What is consistent now about “South Park” is when a given season distributes its positive and negative episodes.  The season’s first half tends to lack in quality, while the second half becomes more consistently satisfying.  Again, this breakdown results from the shooting schedule.  Even though the “South Park” gang doesn’t start work on the pilot until six days before to its airing (and this season saw that problem intensified, as Trey and Matt were hard at work with their Book of Mormon Broadway musical), they want to start strong, so they stuff the opener with the craziest ideas they can think of.  The end result usually generates a lot of comic momentum, and that’s crucial, since viewers need the memory of the solid season premiere to get them through five or six lazy, uninspired shows in a row.  That long slump comes as a result of the crew blowing their best ideas at the jump and not being able to keep up with the six-day pace.

And then, the show goes on hiatus for a couple of months.  Trey and Matt recharge, they meet with the writers’ room to discuss potential story ideas, and we all benefit; the back end generally moves smoother, with better emphasis on the characters and more confident narrative momentum.

You can set your watch to that progression, and Season 15 is no different from the last seven or eight.  Even with the added Book of Mormon stresses, the show maintains its consistent lack of consistency; t comes roaring out of the gate with “Human Cent-iPad,” a twisted concoction that combines the world’s obsession over the iPad with the film Human Centipede, and….well, for those familiar with that picture, I’ll say this: Kyle is in Position B.  That turns into the never-ending crapfest that is “FunnyBot,” “Royal Pudding,” and “T.M.I.,” each of which has exactly one good joke that we hear too often. “Crack Baby Athletic Association” provides a brief respite, but then we’re back into the suck with “City Sushi.”

However, “You’re Getting Old,” which follows Stan in the aftermath of his tenth birthday, is one of the great “South Park” episodes—it’s funny and sad, a combination rare in this animated universe—and it begins a great run that lasts through the Occupy Wall Street/Cartman goes insane-themed “1%.”  It’s a bit of a shame that the quality drops again for its final two episodes, “A History Channel Thanksgiving” and “The Poor Kid” (and really, “The Poor Kid” is simply underwhelming rather than bad.  It has some good stuff, unlike “A History Channel Thanksgiving,” which abandons a solid premise—the boys write a Thanksgiving paper using the History Channel’s brand of specious intelligence—in favor of an awful Thor parody, complete with Natalie Portman cameo), but considering Trey and Matt’s workload, it’s possible they simply collapsed just shy of the finish line.

The question is, as it is every year, does the good outweigh the bad?  Because the “goods” are so good and the “bads” are so bad, Trey and Matt have made it easy; it comes down to simple math.  By my calculations, I count eight good-to-great episodes and six wretched ones.  The six bad ones cancel out six of the good ones, and you’re left with a remainder of two goodies.  The season comes out two ahead, beating the curve, but barely.

Such is the peril of seat-of-your-pants creativity.

Paramount’s two-disc Blu-ray set offers sparkling transfers of the fourteen Season Fifteen episodes in their 1.78:1 broadcast aspect ratios.  There’s far more detail and picture information here than you might expect from such a crudely designed program; likewise, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio tracks provide a lot of aural stimulation.

For features, we get the “Six Days to Air” documentary—which is worth the price of admission for “South Park” fans—a quick behind-the-scenes look at “City Sushi,” five minutes of rough deleted scenes, and mini-commentaries from Trey and Matt on every episode.  Paramount has shown the season as much love and care as could probably be expected.

You take the good with the bad when you watch “South Park.”  I find the lack of consistency problematic at times; guys as talented as Trey Parker and Matt Stone can bat better than .500.  Their saving grace?  Every time they make a hit, it’s a home run.  C’est la vie.

“South Park: The Complete Fifteenth Season” is available on March 27th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.