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South Park: The Passion of the Jew

To capitalize on the DVD release of Mel Gibson's ballyhooed 2004 blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, Comedy Central has released a special collection of three religious-themed episodes of the animated comedy series South Park, including Season 8's topical "The Passion of the Jew," which satirizes the numerous controversies surrounding Gibson's film. In superficial ways, "The Passion of the Jew" (ep. # 804) is typical of South Park's acerbic style of cultural commentary; yet it is also, sadly, one of the weakest and least funny episodes of the series, and marks a rare sloppiness in the show's normally acute comic radar. The episode deals with the South Park community's myriad reactions to Gibson's movie, focusing, as usual, on the show's central quartet of fourth graders, Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman. Jewish Kyle is haunted by the movie's graphic violence and begins to question the role of his religion in the persecution of Christ; Cartman, on the other hand, deifies Gibson and uses the popularity of the film to rally gullible Christians into a burgeoning neo-Nazi movement (fans of the show will be well-accustomed to Cartman's flippant Jew-hating, as well as the adult population of South Park gamely falling prey to every repulsive whim that blows through town; together they make a challenging combination). In the most prosaic of the storylines, Stan and Kenny, bored by the over-hyped film, hunt down Gibson to demand their money back. The depiction of Kyle's personal ordeal is atypically heavy-handed, humorless, and bordering on didactic (ironic, given Stan's key complaint to Gibson). Cartman's subplot is the funniest, owing to its sheer outrageousness, yet it barely summons the laughs to cover its disturbing premise; and despite Cartman's, uh… precocious anti-Semitism, series masterminds Matt Stone and Trey Parker reserve the bulk of their ridicule for Gibson, viciously characterizing the actor and director as a psychotic sadomasochist whose filmography amounts to little more than a series of projected, violent sexual fantasies. While South Park's modus operandi is the fearless and profane puncturing of (often politically correct) social hysteria, in "The Passion of the Jew," Stone and Parker fall too easily into the Passion-bashing chorus and, uncommonly caught up in the hysteria themselves, end up bluntly satirizing phenomena that exist only in the fevered imaginations of their usual targets (the media-saturating pre-release claims of The Passion of the Christ's alleged anti-Semitism, after all, appear to have been largely debunked by reality, and the film's financial success can only be categorized, given the fears, as remarkably benign). Although one of the show's often-hilarious trademarks is its gleeful, no-holds-barred deflating of pompous celebrity, the attack on Gibson feels particularly out-of-place. If, say, Gibson is guilty of little more than pursuing a personal project in the face of unyielding and irrational moral outrage, one would expect the creators of South Park to manage a mite of empathy for that situation.

*          *          *

The poor quality of the "The Passion of the Jew" notwithstanding, the other two episodes on this disc are quite good. "Christian Rock Hard" (ep. #709) is an amusing send-up of Christian pop music as Cartman cynically aims to exploit religious sentiment to score a platinum record and win a wager with Kyle, whose own band stagnates when they become crusaders against Internet music piracy. The real gem on this disc, however, is a South Park classic, "Red Hot Catholic Love" (ep. # 608), one of the series' best-ever episodes. Paranoid that a church boat trip will result in the molestation of their children, the Catholics of South Park hastily declare themselves atheists. Troubled by the explosive church scandals, local priest Father Maxi travels to the Vatican to address the sensitive issue to his resistant peers. Meanwhile, the children of South Park grapple with the confusing allegations of abuse, leading Cartman to discover a truly remarkable digestive quirk that becomes an unsettling national diet craze. Every narrative thread in "Red Hot Catholic Love" brims with the maverick absurdity and crass creativity that has made the show an enduring hit amongst the irreverent, and rarely are all the show's best ingredients so seamlessly incorporated into one 22-minute episode. It is South Park at its peak, and it is marvelously funny. While this episode alone would make this disc worth owning, diehard fans likely will wait for the eventual season set. All three episodes are presented on Paramount's DVD release in fine full-frame transfers (1.33:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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