“BEEFCAKE!” – Weight Gain 4000
August 20, 1997
“Kathie Lee Gifford comes to South Park to present an award to Cartman, and Mr. Garrison hopes to use the event to assassinate her.”
If y’all will recall, I mentioned that South Park works in part, especially at the beginning, because it’s ultimately a kid’s story. Obviously it’s raunchy as all get out and not suitable for kids, but it’s grounded with problems we’ve all faced as kids.
“Weight Gain 4000” is ultimately, aside from the heightened story, about being a kid at school and feeling jealous. Cartman cheats at writing a paper and is chosen as the winner of the “Save Our Fragile Planet” challenge. And in response, Wendy, who feels entitled to have won it, sets out to expose him. Interestingly, Wendy is given the big speech at the end instead of Kyle or Stan.
But unlike them, her message is undercut by her ultimate selfish goal of exposing Cartman so she can win. Surprise: when she reveals this, her adult audience is indifferent and her petty revenge is foiled. Granted, it would have been nice to see Cartman get exposed, so her double motive is complicated.
While we’re here, it’s worth mentioning how complex and ambitious Trey and Matt are with their interweaving plot lines. Wendy’s anger at Cartman ties into Kathy Lee Gifford which ties into Mr. Garrisons’ plot when Wendy comically overhears Garrison’s convenient exposition regarding assassination.
There are a variety of topics/motifs covered in “Weight Gain” that will echo through the years. Like many if not most artists, Trey and Matt aren’t fans of hypocritical authority and the fawning masses, which this episode is rife with. The very idea of a corny, corporate kids program like “Save Our Fragile Planet” program is something they’ll revisit with the likes of “Getting Gay With Kids” in season 3.
Also, take note of South Park gushing over Kathy Lee Gifford, who even in her heyday probably shouldn’t warrant the high degree of star-struck the town gets whipped into. While the Mayor considers the townsfolk stupid and we’re supposed to resent her for that, the creators seem to have similar sentiment about the people of South Park (who are stand ins for humanity itself).
Speaking of which, the Mayor, a Hilary Clinton-esque embodiment of two-faced lust for political power, is at the forefront of trying to make South Park (which she “secretly” resents) presentable. Completely superficial, she enlists Chef solely on the color of his skin. While diversity isn’t a bad thing by any means, the fact that it’s a political move made solely by a white committee points to strong commentary by Trey and Matt.
It’s especially amusing to see South Park put on an accurate play of their colonialist history and the Mayor’s horrified response. Of course she’s not upset about the history of the town — she’s instead afraid it’ll scare Gifford away. The trope of a revealing town play is a frequent one in the annals of TV history, especially in ‘50s sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show or The Phil Silvers Show (ask your grandparents about that one). Perhaps these shows and/or the time period they were made in were on Trey and Matt’s minds, because they spoof ineffective ‘50s PSAs in this episode as well.
But there are even more themes that make their first appearance here. More than ever, Mr. Garrison is a psychotic schizophrenic, which was hinted at with Mr. Hat in the first episode. However, here he goes full ham and tries to kill Kathy Lee Gifford because he was upstaged as a child (once again, a thing any kid can relate to). Anyone who’s seen just a bit of South Park knows Trey and Matt love playing with bipolar, schizophrenic, manic characters.
One could say this is offensive, portraying people with mental health as psychotic, but it’s so absurd in this episode and others that the sentiment clearly comes across as nothing more than an easy joke. These days, mental health is talked about so much, I don’t think anybody would watch this episode and write off those suffering from mental health issues because South Park makes fun of them.
Then again, pop culture is a gauge on how we feel and treat minorities and the oppressed, so the portrayal of mental health in a negative light could point to a larger problem in society. This is where things get complicated, especially in the realm of comedy: should jokes be held responsible for contributing or mirroring social attitudes? Something to think about.
There are a few other little details worth mentioning. Butters make this first appearance, albeit exceedingly brief, as he beats up Pip during the play. Uncle Jimbo is already set up as a gun crazy redneck (acting like Steven Prince in Taxi Driver), which is the main topic of the next episode. On the wall of the Cartman household is a crucifix, which is especially amusing seeing Christian iconography in the home of — you know — the Cartmans.
Finally, it’s revealed that Cartman ripped off Thoreau’s Walden for his paper on saving the fragile world, and for those that don’t know, the book’s full title is: Walden: Life in the Woods, which points to just how the townspeople of South Park, for all the madness of their reality, consider their lives on par with the musings of Thoreau in the woodland.
If only, for their sakes. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Cartman’s humongous transformation after taking Weight Gain 4000, which one could say is a commentary on misleading exercise campaigns and people’s gullability — but I think it’s more of an opportunity to see Cartman have his own Tetsuo moment.
As for animation, “Weight Gain” is leagues more involved than the previous, first episode. According to IMDb, this was the first episode to use computer animation in the increased fluidity of the animation is evident. There’s some nice filmmaking going on as well, like the contrasting use of a worm’s and eagle’s eye perspective when Mr. Garrison talks down to Clyde.
When Cartman watches an ad for Beefcake, we see that the muscle-pound presenter is so passionate about cans of Weight Gain 4000, the product goes through the television screen in 3D, which is a nice detail that goes unremarked on.
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