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‘South Park’ return of Chef scores big ratings

3.5 million viewers for season premiere most for series since December '04
/ Source: Reuters

The satiric cable TV cartoon “South Park” drew hefty ratings with the launch of its 10th season, cashing in on a recent clash with the Church of Scientology and the departure of one of the show’s few adult heroes.

Wednesday’s season debut of the crudely animated hit on the Comedy Central network, featuring a return of the lusty “Chef” character formerly voiced by soul singer Isaac Hayes, drew 3.5 million viewers, Nielsen Media Research reported Thursday.

That made “The Return of Chef!” the highest-rated episode of “South Park” since December 2004 and surpassed the show’s average audience from last season by nearly 1 million viewers.

It also marked the show’s highest-rated season premiere since 2002 among viewers aged 18 to 49, the audience group most prized by advertisers.

The episode was ostensibly billed as a homecoming tribute to Hayes’ character, school cafeteria cook James “Chef” McElroy, who had long served as adult confidant to the foul-mouthed fourth graders in the fictional town of South Park, Colorado.

Hayes, 63, himself a follower of Scientology, said last week that he was leaving the show because of its “inappropriate ridicule” of religion. Although he made no mention of it at the time, a spokeswoman said the “last straw” for Hayes was an episode last November lampooning Scientology and its celebrity adherents, including actor Tom Cruise.

Comedy Central then abruptly pulled a scheduled repeat of the episode, titled “Trapped in the Closet,” and series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker issued a statement suggesting the Church of Scientology was behind that move.

Sources close to the show said the rerun was canceled after Cruise threatened to boycott promotion of his upcoming film, “Mission: Impossible III,” for sister studio Paramount Pictures. A spokesman for Cruise denied that charge.

Stone and Parker fanned the flames further with Wednesday’s episode, which alluded to their parody of Scientology last fall without making explicit mention of the church.

In the episode, Chef falls under the influence of the “Super Adventure Club,” a secretive group that worships pedophilia and brainwashes its members into becoming child molesters.

In the climax to the episode, the kids of South Park try to rescue Chef, but he falls off a bridge into a ravine, where he is impaled on a tree trunk and mauled by wild animals. At the very end members of the club try to revive Chef, and he is transformed into a Darth Vader-like character.

A spokesman for Comedy Central said lines of dialogue spoken by Chef in the season premiere were edited together by the producers from previous episodes.

Both Comedy Central and Paramount are owned by Viacom Inc.