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"An Aborted Dinner Date," "A Poorly Executed Plan," "Eenie Meenie Miney MURDER!," "S.D.I.-AYE-AYE!," "The First Lady's Persqueeter," "Mom 'E' D.E.A. Arrest," "Trapped in a Small Environment," "Fare Thee Welfare"
"What we're sick of--and it's getting even worse--is: You either like Michael Moore or you wanna fuckin' go overseas and shoot Iraqis. There can't be a middle ground. Basically, if you think Michael Moore's full of shit, then you are a super-Christian right-wing whatever. And we're both just pretty middle-ground guys. We find just as many things to rip on on the left as we do on the right. People on the far left and the far right are the same exact person to us."
-- Trey Parker, "Interview of the Meanest"; IN FOCUS, October 2004
by Ian Pugh I think "South Park" boasts the occasional flash of brilliance, but I resent that its more flagrantly political messages, particularly in the past few seasons, essentially boil down to 'both sides are fucking crazy: here's how it really is.' Trey Parker and Matt Stone strike me less as philosophers than as contrarians who force their perceived sensible alternatives down our throats as the infallible Solution. It's a shame, too, because Parker and Stone remain two of the most talented satirists of our generation, if not in terms of hot-button topics: The ending of the recent "South Park" episode "Stanley's Cup," for instance, attacked sports movies by reminding us that every game involves two teams with similar aspirations, and, of course, Team America: World Police's caustic parody of "Rent" is as concise and shocking a criticism of that musical as one will find. I'm not taking the stupidly dismissive "I like you better when you're funny" position that Tucker Carlson had towards Jon Stewart on CNN's "Crossfire", but in the world of "South Park", there are only three options when it comes to world events: left, right, and middle, the latter being invariably correct. Compared to the innumerable increments in the political spectrum of reality, three extremes are no better than two.
Cancelled for its exorbitant expense, the multilayered intelligence of Parker-Stone's failed live-action sitcom "That's My Bush!" could probably be attributed to how apolitical it is. Conceived as a parody entitled "Family First" in the months before the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, the show went into production with its official double-entendre title once Bush was essentially appointed to office. Its willingness to swing the other way, should the results have demanded it (the Gore version would've been called "Absolute Al"), speak to its touted point: "That's My Bush!" is strictly a parody of the form, complete with canned laughter as the President--depicted as a blue collar paterfamilias--misinterprets conversations, hosts in-laws, steals cable, that sort of thing. Except, of course, these prefab wacky scenarios are applied to serious topics like euthanasia, the War on Drugs, and missile defense. In so doing, Parker and Stone risked a quick dip into obsolescence: Portraying Bush (Dubya look-alike Timothy Bottoms, a great comic actor--at least when he's playing Bush) as a slightly dimwitted "working class" schmoe seems especially antiquated today, when Bush parodies are a genre unto themselves. 9/11 and the war in Iraq have morphed this man in our eyes from an inconsequential boob into a strong leader and from there into a dangerous incompetent and naked emperor. Certainly the show's theme-song lyric "he's kind of in charge" takes on a horrifying scope from our current perspective.
Granted, "That's My Bush!" operates with the full knowledge that it's incredibly inappropriate to imagine the President of the United States as a lovable sitcommy buffoon. As much as we might read up on them, one can never really "know" the people we elect to public office until they're up, running, and enacting policies; we knew practically nothing about this fellow George W. Bush in the opening months of his administration, other than the fact that he was a Republican prone to malapropisms. That goes double for his cabinet: Series regular Karl Rove (Kurt Fuller) is a perpetual straight man who looks nothing like the genuine article; and it's hard to imagine special guest star Donald Rumsfeld (Madison Mason) now the way "That's My Bush!" did then, as a strait-laced military man perpetually dressed in full uniform. It speaks to a certain disdain in the media-image-driven aspects of elections, questioning not so much the whys as the hows. (Compare this to "South Park"'s self-satisfied lampoon of the 2004 vote, "Douche and Turd," which instead of critiquing the mechanics of the process like "That's My Bush!" opts for a much easier, defeatist stance of "who gives a shit?") "That's My Bush!" anticipates a viewing audience from years into the future as harrowed, nostalgic escapists; nowadays, the series might make for good viewing alongside An Inconvenient Truth as examples of buyer's remorse.
But again, its nature belies something even deeper: The show expresses discontent not only with the state of our political process, but with our popular culture as well. It achieves a perfect balance of those two ideas with its treatment of capital punishment and old buddies, "A Poorly Executed Plan" (1.2), in which George's Yalie frat brothers pay a visit just when he's scheduled to attend a state execution. Determined to demonstrate to his friends that he hasn't softened with success, George plans a fake execution with a much-reviled improv comedy group (played by the show's staff writers, perhaps in a winking nod to their job security). The ruse is predictably botched, and a disturbingly irreverent Bush ends up killing the real prisoner himself by pouring Drano into the needle. However horrific, this succeeds in at once conveying a barbarism to the death penalty and taking its most virulent opponents to task for imagining that the motives of advocates are rooted in bloodlust. It's lambasting both sides, yes, but it differs from the modern "South Park" by being a condemnation of popular half-thought assumptions rather than of fully-realized beliefs. The funniest bit of satire, though, comes once George realizes his folly: Lamenting his execution rate as Governor of Texas, he launches into the "I could have done more" speech from Schindler's List as the laugh-track continues to cackle away in the background. In a double-whammy that criticizes middlebrow opinion, the scene takes a bravely unpopular stance in suggesting that there's something disingenuous about Spielberg's film while demonstrating, with infinite worry, that idiots will laugh at anything.
Find some of that same concern as the canned audience hoots and catcalls whenever the impossibly sexy, impossibly stupid scheduler Princess Stevenson (Kristen Miller) enters and leaves the room, regardless of whether she's thoroughly demeaned and objectified by her bosses and sent back to sit at the kids' table. Moreover, Ralph Kramden's "bang, zoom, straight to the moon" becomes a traditional audience singalong of "one-a these days, Laura, I'm gonna punch you in the face!" As each episode ends with George recounting the lessons he's learned, I daresay the series actively disapproves of the petty moralizing of television, proposing that it does more harm than good by sanctioning a lack of conscientiousness except where the broadest lessons are concerned. Our obsession with such mediocrity has given birth to a culture that posits extremes as the only enemy--where a man can only be a misogynist if he's an ogling domestic abuser, or a racist if he burns crosses and shouts the N-word in public.
But it's a timeless, incurable epidemic, not unlike our elective process. The funniest episode of the lot is easily the season/series finale, "Fare Thee Welfare" (1.8), wherein the premise of "That's My Bush!" finally implodes. George is "laid off" and takes a tour through the territory of "The Jeffersons", "Good Times", "Welcome Back, Kotter", "Cheers", and "Just Shoot Me!" (brilliantly reduced to the egotistically wacky title "Witty Banter"). Each scenario begins with a voiceover from Parker stating what we are seeing was "filmed before a live studio audience," and that sentence becomes increasingly indistinct with repetition, until it's finally a lazy collection of consonants and vowels. I have a particular affinity for Parker's ability to warp the English language (the nonsensical Rob Schneider trailer from the "Biggest Douche in the Universe" episode of "South Park" is all you ever need to know about Rob Schneider), and here it serves the purpose of summing up approximately a quarter-century of comedic American television by insinuating that it all runs together into one bland mechanism of stimulus-response.
At its heart, "That's My Bush!" is an incredulous analysis of our diminishing expectations, wondering aloud how the stunning banality of "Full House" or "Friends" captured the hearts and minds of the American public for years at a time while simultaneously questioning how a man who gives off the vibe of a folksy moron could be offered the role of leader of the free world. Alas, it's a problem we're presented with every four years; Parker and Stone knew they were asking questions with no simple answers. If the extremes of today's "South Park" have finally consumed them, then we can probably consider them victims of Nietzsche's abyss.
Paramount brings all eight episodes of "That's My Bush!" to DVD in a two-disc "Definitive Collection" under its Comedy Central banner. The full-frame, tape-based image is dull and noisy at points, but the sitcom format demands that the picture be somewhat unremarkable; there's a feeling that we're losing something, though, as the show's occasional stabs at nuance and complex shadows demonstrate an ability and desire to be, y'know, competently shot. The Dolby 2.0 stereo is a little quiet, the dialogue sometimes swallowed up by the overpowering laugh-track--but again, that's the point, innit?
Audio commentary from Parker and Stone accompanies every instalment. Veterans of a "mini-commentary" format from their "South Park" collections, Stone and Parker go at each episode for three or four minutes at a time, quickly wrapping up as soon as the dialogue begins to slow down. The two come across as more intelligent and better-spoken than they do in their somewhat offhand "Park" commentaries, and despite the time constraints, some fascinating stories emerge. We learn of the difficult transition from animation to live-action; the interminable wait for the 2000 election results; and how a stupid joke about arming bears eventually "broke the budget" with four different fake and real grizzlies. They exude real pride in the project, but they run out of steam by the seventh episode, so we're glad they get out while the gettin's good.
Eight additional cast commentaries starring the series regulars (Bottoms, "Laura Bush" Carrie Quinn Dolin, Fuller, Miller, sassy housekeeper Marcia Wallace (no stranger to sitcoms herself), and wacky neighbour John D'Aquino) are nicely summed up by Bottoms's opening statement as he retains his Dubya drawl: "I'm Timothy Bottoms, and I'm here with my friends." The actors reminisce about a great time, laughing heartily at the jokes and narrating the action; it sounds like they haven't seen the series--or each other--since it premiered. The camaraderie carries it for miles, but as they resort to pointing and looking ("God, you're so hot," Bottoms says whenever Miller pops on screen), you're grateful that their yakkers are only marginally longer than Parker and Stone's. Finally, trailers for "South Park: The Complete Eighth Season", Windy City Heat, "Stella: Season One", and "Strangers with Candy: The Complete Series" cue up on startup of the first disc. Originally published: January 2, 2007.