What we sometimes miss about South Park is that besides being a sharply fanged satire; besides being a wickedly offensive gross-out exercise; besides having the will to go further to prove its labored points than most programs (animated or otherwise); it is, essentially, one of the more finely tuned commentaries on pop culture that we have. While I’m certainly not the first person to say this, the mere fact that this is one of the many cases to be made for the show’s relevance is a serious credit to its success. Despite the fact that there are many who would like to dismiss South Park as immature tripe, shooting fish in a barrel (like, say, Family Guy), one would be hard-pressed to find a series more…opinionated, funny, or utterly fearless.
Even when the show is slightly less overtly hilarious, Trey is almost always able to infuse a sense of cultural relevance while remaining current and universal at the same time. Its reasons for success are the same reasons why a show like Family Guy usually fails. The most recent episode entitled "Guitar Queer-O," is a perfect example of this method. This is a much needed subdued affair in a season that just finished a needlessly large, epic trilogy. While it may not be as laugh-out-loud hilarious as South Park can sometimes be, it is a mostly winning examination of a recent cultural phenomenon and contains a surprisingly sweet center. The simplicity here is key.
Stan and Kyle open the episode wailing on their plastic axes while playing the latest installment of Guitar Hero in front of a room full of amazed friends. The two went halfers on an X-Box 360, and seem to be novices on the simulated rock star game. Despite attempts by Stan’s dad Randy to show the boys how awesome it is to play actual guitar, he is abruptly dismissed by the boys (Cartman, natch) as "gay." Later, in the middle of the night, there is a pretty hilarious bit where Randy tries to play the game only to be booed by the video game crowd for sucking so bad. Apparently guitar skills aren’t quite the same as Guitar Hero skills. Who would’ve thought?
As Stan and Kyle continue to get better at the game, they eventually reach 100,000 points. Inexplicably (and this is where the episode takes off), a record executive shows up at Stan’s door. He heard about their arrival at 100,000 points, and wants to make them stars by eventually reaching 1 million points. This crystallizes the central parody of the episode, calling upon the classic rock star story structure.
Stan and Kyle are signed to a record contract, taken to wild "coke and sex parties," and are eventually driven apart by the record company. Kyle goes off on his own, while Stan becomes an ego-maniac and hits rock bottom before their inevitable reunion. This is all, of course, with them not knowing how to actually play one note of real music. You following yet? This slight indoctrination of the music industry is brought further to light when the record executive, after forcing Stan to part ways with Kyle, replaces Kyle with Thad (clearly an Indie kid skewering), who you have to see and hear to truly appreciate.
The episode, however, is not so much attacking the recording industry as it is observing a trend emerging in valuing the simulated over the real. Children soaked in a culture of video games and false realities tend to not appreciate the finer misgivings of the real world. This point is hit home when Stan, instead of getting addicted to actual heroine (like a real rock star would), gets addicted to a game called Heroine Hero!
Later, after completely destroying and embarrassing himself, Stan is left alone. In a pretty hilarious scene, he is playing a nondescript driving game by himself with Kansas playing over the soundtrack ("Carry on My Wayward Son" was the song he and Kyle scored 100k points to). This is obviously supposed to substitute the usual scene of the down trodden protagonist going out for a drive to reflect on his mistakes. Finally he decides to leave and find his friend.
We find Kyle at a local Bowling Alley playing the Guitar Hero arcade game to the patrons around the bar. He gets free Frescas! Stan apologizes and admits that he NEEDS Kyle. Together they decide that they can make it to 1 million points, and they are just going to do it for themselves.
The news spreads to the neighborhood kids of the reunion and they all gather to watch this event at Stan’s house. Focused, the boys play their hearts out and finally reach a million points. The game congratulations them and let’s them know, once and for all that they are…FAGS.
You can kind of see the ending coming, but the journey to get there is a lot of fun. This is probably one of my favorite episodes of the show simply because it has such attainable goals and never stretches beyond its means--as Trey is often known to do. The rock star story formula utilized here is always loads of fun, though. Even Saved by the Bell used it to perfection for God’s sake! Compounded by a nice little statement about technological saturation and you’ve got a damn solid episode. This issue has sort of been touched on before with the popular "World of Warcraft" episode, but that was on a completely different playing field (quite literally). "Guitar Queer-O" can almost serve as accompaniment to said episode, simply with a far more romanticized method and a much sweeter disposition. However, they both work as raucously funny situational comedy material and, as an adjunct, a more than apt pop culture commentary. And, really, that’s the whole point of the show.