Once upon a time, I was a big fan of this show. Reruns of South Park and the first season of Scrubs got me through my first year of college. Finding two other shows with such stark tonal differences would be a challenge, but they both offered me a strange sense of comfort during a difficult and confusing year. JD, Elliot, and Turk struggled as first-year interns in a way that reflected my own struggles as a college freshman, and I related to their various pains and heartbreaks. The show often had a sad, reflective tone, which made its overall optimistic and hopeful outlook feel earned and grounded in reality.
South Park was for my pessimistic moods, when I couldn’t stop thinking about all the bad things happening in the world and felt hopeless for humanity. South Park was cynicism, even nihilism, in cartoon form, and watching it confirmed all my negative feelings. “Everything sucks and people are hypocrites,” the show seemed to say, “so why not laugh about it?”
And I did laugh. I laughed when the show took human failings and brought them to their most extreme conclusions (Cartman creates a hate group inspired by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). I laughed when the show directed scathing commentary against institutions that deserved it (Father Maxi turns out to be the only Roman Catholic priest in the world who’s not abusing children). I laughed whenever the show refused to sanitize childhood and was honest about the fact that kids can sometimes be mean and self-interested.
And, once in a while, the show appeared to have a soul. It was sympathetic to Britney Spears during her mental breakdown while other media delighted in her pain. It had us feel for Wendy when she Photoshopped her portrait, succumbing to unrealistic beauty standards for women and girls. It realized that Butters was their best character, stopped treating him like a punching bag in every episode, and let him get a win sometimes.
Above all, I loved their indictment of hypocrites.
I don’t remember exactly when I became aware that Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s underlying philosophy is that everyone’s a hypocrite, and people are only pretending to care about larger issues to make themselves feel good. I know it was a gradual awareness that happened around the same time I started to understand that “ironic” sexism and racism was just plain sexism and racism.
When I became more interested in media analysis, I started paying closer attention to the people Parker and Stone targeted in their comedy. The targets weren’t just the powerful and corrupt. They attacked transgender people – and even though they walked back some of their commentary several seasons letter, they doubled down on their ignorance in a recent episode that J.K. Rowling probably plays on repeat. They made entire episodes around shaming famous women they deemed unacceptable (such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Hillary Clinton, Paris Hilton).
But even these hateful moments didn’t have the kind of lasting negative impact as the show’s most consistent message: caring about things is stupid and both sides are just as bad. People who don’t care about the environment are no worse than the people who are smug over caring about the environment. And, yeah, okay, we were wrong about climate change and we’re sorry about that, but we might have taken it seriously years ago if Al Gore hadn’t been so obnoxious.
Then I heard the show was having a “pandemic special.”
In spite of myself, my curiosity was piqued. Could a show long past its prime find new relevance in an unprecedented situation? Would they somehow manage to both-sides a pandemic?
So I watched with a question in mind: Does this show have anything new to say, yes or no?
And wouldn’t you know? I can see both sides.
“The Pandemic Special” was not kind to the police as individuals or an institution. The cops were all too eager to get their hands back on military-grade weapons. They shot the only Black student in the fourth-grade classroom when two white kids were fighting. They shot and killed a kid playing in the snow who didn’t “stand down.”
But the portrayal of police violence didn’t come across as a searing indictment of a corrupt institution. It felt like a series of moments for stoners to laugh and say, “Man, that’s fucked up,” move on, and not think about it again. You’re encouraged to see the cops as hypocrites but not spare a thought for the people they harmed. We don’t even see Token again after cops shoot him. He’s not allowed a reaction to his traumatic experience.
Why is that important in such an over-the-top episode? Because they do allow emotional moments for Stan, Butters, and even Cartman. Unsurprisingly, those moments are the best parts of the episode. Cartman’s musical theater number about the joys of social distancing for a misanthrope is perfectly in character for him. Butters’ rant about his delayed trip to Build-a-Bear is funny, endearing, and sad all at once. And we get to see Stan, frequently the voice of reason in a world of chaos, have an emotional breakdown over the never-ending bleakness of a life under quarantine.
I have mixed thoughts about the Trump satire in the form of Mr. Garrison. Garrison’s blatant admission that he doesn’t care how many people die of COVID-19, that he actively wants the pandemic to continue, is an accurate portrayal of the president’s malice. Yet there’s still something lacking from the joke. Part of that isn’t South Park’s fault; Trump is so over-the-top that he makes cartoon villains seem subtle in comparison. But the focus on his narcissism and hatred feels like too little, too late from the people responsible for “Douche vs. Turd.”
“The Pandemic Special” refers to Randy Marsh’s discounted weed from Tegridy Farms, and he and other characters debate whether this sale is something we need right now. The meta-commentary, of course, is whether or not we need episodes like “The Pandemic Special.” Is it helpful for our entertainment to focus on the pandemic and find humor in a dark situation? Or are we better off going to entertainment for distraction and getting a break from all this sadness?
The choice is personal. I’ve opted for distraction in the form of Schitt’s Creek and What We Do in the Shadows. The first is a hopeful and optimistic show that’s sweet without being saccharine; it’s like a hug in TV form. The second is pure absurdity with no other agenda than to be ridiculous and funny.
But there’s a place for the kind of comedy that addresses the pandemic head-on. There’s value in experiencing catharsis through laughter. Maybe I will seek forms of comedy that vent our collective frustrations with this world.
I don’t think that form of comedy will be South Park.