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This season's ''South Park'' has returned to fine form

EW’s Kristen Baldwin says the show was on a rebound before losing its lead female voice

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This season’s ”South Park” has returned to fine form

Aug. 13, 1997, was a hallowed day in TV history, because it introduced the world — or at least those among the cable-subscribing population — to a sublimely nasty, smart, and hilarious little show called ”South Park.” The Comedy Central oddity wasted no time in becoming what we hack writers like to call ”a phenomenon,” much to the dismay of parents and humorless ”family values” advocates. Season 1 of ”South Park” presented a string of near-flawless comedic gems — Cartman’s alien abduction, Scuzzlebutt, ”and then Scott Baio gave me pinkeye,” Starvin’ Marvin, and Mr. Hankey among them.

The show hit such a peak so quickly that its cocreators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, were bound to experience creative burnout. When season 2 began in April of 1998, Parker and Stone went from filming the poorly received (yet really not all that bad) comedy ”BASEketball” to writing what would become the funniest movie of 1999, ”South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” Sure enough, the declining quality of the ”South Park” episodes clearly indicated the pair were overextended.

While season 2 did have some redeeming moments (Mr. Mackey’s ”Drugs are bad, mmmmk?” proclamation in the ”Ike’s Wee-Wee” episode or the goateed ”evil” Cartman from ”Spooky Fish”), the majority of segments lacked the surprise, audacity, and insight that make ”Park” funny. Instead we got stunts (the guest-voice-filled ”Chef Aid”), tame send-ups (”The Mexican Staring Frog of Southern Sri Lanka” which took on Jerry Springer-style talk shows), and a really disappointing return of Mr. Hankey in ”Chef’s Salty Chocolate Balls” (and that titter-inducing title song was only funny the first time).

Parker and Stone were still bearing the burden of making their vicious and raunchy ”Uncut” acceptable to the MPAA for an R rating in April of ’99, when ”Park”’s third season began — and the episodes continued to be mediocre at best. But something truly funny began to happen in the months after the big-screen ”Park” hit theaters: The small-screen ”Park” reconnected with its absurdist edge. (Voice-over artist Mary Kay Bergman, who committed suicide on Nov. 11, performed all of the female voices for the new episodes, including some that haven’t aired yet. The show’s creators haven’t announced yet how they’ll make up for her loss.)

Recent episodes showed that the ”Park” duo had started to find their job fun again. That promise was fulfilled with the funniest episode this year, ”Chinpoko Mon,” a masterful and pointed satire of the Pok√©mon craze. Starvin’ Marvin’s return in last week’s ”Starvin’ Marvin’ in Space” kept ”Park” on a creative roll, specifically with Kyle’s speech to a group of aliens, which managed to subtly take down the chauvinism of Christian extremists through Kyle’s use of the aliens’ one-word language (”They use marklar to try and force marklars to believe their marklar.”) And there was the juvenile joy of ”Korn’s Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery,” in which the quasi-punk band members were drawn ”Scooby-Doo” style.

It’s a wonderful thing to have ”South Park” back in all its offensive glory. Here’s hoping that the millennium won’t bring too much extra work Parker and Stone’s way (they’re already supposed to write the ”Dumb and Dumber” prequel, you know); those four dysfunctional third graders need all the parental attention they can get.