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South Park: The Complete 12th Season

For cynical TV viewers who have already watched the creative decline of The Simpsons and Family Guy, it's not a matter of if South Park will jump the shark but when. All shows atrophy in inspiration — or else they know when to end it before they do. The shark jump of South Park has been posited since at least 2004, but most estimates by disgruntled bloggers suggest 2007 or 2008, the latter the domain of Season 12, now on DVD from Paramount.

Analyzing the 12th season objectively, even the most die-hard defenders of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's influential creation must admit the show has lost some luster. Perhaps when Isaac Hayes died, some of the South Park magic went with him.

The problem has less to do with the show losing its ability to make us laugh on a fairly regular basis; it still does this. It's just requiring us to think less frequently, failing to live up to the high standards the show set in its prime. Most episodes eschew the two-pronged approach of boundary-pushing humor and pointed social commentary in favor of hollow, masturbatory movie parodies and targets of little substance. Look no further than the exhaustible two-part episode "Pandemic," which takes aim at, uh ... pan-flute bands, before becoming an excuse to spoof the handheld horror mayhem of Cloverfield. It could have had something interesting to say. It feigns at substance by sending all the nation's pan-flute bands to Guantanamo Bay, but any message Parker and Stone might be sending about the perils of shipping innocent people to a prison camp is derailed by a silly story involving giant guinea pigs terrorizing the town thanks to an ancient, cave-scrawled curse that only South Park bit player Craig can reverse.

Is this really all they've got left? Is the parody more important than the point? "About Last Night," the presidential election episode that famously inserted quotes from Obama and McCain's speeches from election night in the next day's show, uses the campaign to stage an elaborate riff on the Oceans heist films; in Parker and Stone's vision, both candidates were just in cahoots to steal the Hope Diamond. Cute, but the only value here is in the secondary plot, which satirizes both the hyperbolic hope of Obama's supporters — who loot the town in shitfaced glee — and the post-apocalyptic panic of McCain's voters, who sequester themselves in a bunker.

The season also finds the creators revisiting certain preoccupations that've run their course — namely, their peculiar obsession with Canada is explored yet again in the unengaging "Canada on Strike," which is redeemed only by a subplot featuring YouTube celebs like Tay Zonday and the sneezing panda. Apparently tired of seeing Mr. Garrison as a woman, Parker and Stone revive the old sex-change chestnut in "Eek! A Penis!" — an episode whose freakish, free-roaming rat-phallus mutation is more bizarre than funny. Other episodes — such as "Breast Cancer Show Ever," which pits Cartman against Wendy in a schoolhouse brawl, and "Super Fun Time," which sees the students visiting a living museum whose employees refuse to break character even when the village is under attack — are mildly amusing but hardly contain the barn-burning fire of yore.

There are a handful of hopeful glimmers that recall the show in its primacy, especially "Over Logging," a brilliant dissertation on Internet addiction. When the world loses its Internet connection, families travel to Silicon Valley to "find some Internet," making a hilarious parallel to the gold rush and The Grapes of Wrath. The episode also contains one of the most shocking images ever shown on television, which must be seen to be believed.

For shock value, it's also hard to top "The China Problem." The ratings were the show's highest in nine years for this episode, which depicts Steven Spielberg and George Lucas sodomizing poor Indiana Jones, surely a satisfying satire for anyone who endured the torture of The Crystal Skull. "Britney's New Look" and "Major Boobage" are also A-list episodes, taking on heartless paparazzi and antidrug hysteria, respectively.

These episodes are enough to convince that South Park hasn't jumped the shark — at least not yet. But it's further proof that the show is putting on the water skis and getting ready for that ramp. It's only a matter of time. —John Thomason

Repo! The Genetic Opera

Anemic. Tiresome. Preposterous. Dismal. Awful. These aren't the words filmmakers want to hear littering reviews of their flicks. And say what you will about sticks and stones, but less colorful terms have killed many a movie's chance of ever finding an audience, and Repo! The Genetic Opera generated plenty of scathing words. True, the title — with its exclamation point — deserves boos and hisses but, admit it, you're wondering what the hell genetics has to do with a bunch of warbling divas and tenors.

Although nary a critic would admit it, that Repo! sees Paris Hilton in a supporting role guarantees the film insults. But are they deserved? Not so much. Repo's unique (as in not for everybody) plot is a near-future deal where a polluted and apocalyptic world is falling apart because folks are having mass organ failures. Enter GeneCo, a greedy large-scale biotech thingy headed by CEO Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) and his twisted trio of offspring played by Bill Moseley, Paris Hilton and Ogre (of Skinny Puppy!) who offer organ transplants on payment plans. Should you miss a payment, Rotti dispatches his Repo Man (Anthony Stewart Head of Buffy fame) to retrieve the gory merch. There's also family drama, a love triangle, some emotional blackmail, teen rebellion and, yes, all the dialogue is sung — occasionally very well, sometimes not — to a mix of rock, industrial and techno.

OK, Tommy it ain't. Hell, it's not even Rocky Horror. But its eye-popping visuals, garish costumes, nifty graphic novel transitions and fluid direction by Saw (sequels) director Darren Lynn Bousman stand out. It's nice that this rock opera addresses our obsession with debt, addiction, celebrity and cosmetic surgery, and the joke's on Paris. Comic Con fans, gore hounds, goths, fashion freaks and pop-culture goobs will dig Repo! Your Pavarotti-adoring 80-year-old granny, on the other hand, will not. —Paul Knoll

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