a biting and surprisingly affecting satire

The great strength of South Park has always been its insouciant sense of liberation. Because Matt Stone and Trey Parker give themselves permission to do whatever deranged shenanigans they please with each new episode, they’re free to cut through the interference and say what everyone’s thinking, no matter how uncouth. (Or at least, their notion of it.) Over the past four years and especially in the months since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the mainstream news media has utterly failed the American people on this precise front, as arbitrary codes of journalistic propriety have kept legacy publications from stating the obvious. While headline editors at the New York Times have found a thousand ways to phrase Trump’s untruths other than “lies”, the unshackled doofuses of South Park can show the current commander-in-chief flame-throwing humankind’s last hope for a cure because he’s noticed that the coronavirus seems to be predominantly killing people he dislikes. Can’t get held up by factcheckers if you’re not trafficking in facts.

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The animation institution, back this week for a one-hour special not to be confused with the proper debut of its 24th season, may be the most uniquely well-equipped to comment on the rolling clusterfuck that is life in the states right now. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone thrive on short-sightedness, selfishness and stupidity-born aggression, all of which have been in ample supply since the beginning of the quarantine. The viral response has combined a sudden uptick in civic responsibility with widespread dissonance about how much of it is needed, making the perfect recipe for discord. It seems like the populace of this little Coloradan town turn on each other about once a week, and that’s without a nationwide crisis exacerbating things. The continuation of society itself currently depends on good people to govern themselves, but in South Park, where the average American’s worst impulses take wing and soar, that’s a lot to ask.

The show first zeroes in on the simplest, most immediate problem – that no one’s on the same page about where it’s OK to go, for what reasons, and with which precautions. Sweet young Butters wants nothing more than visit the Build-A-Bear, but his father’s contempt for the mandated “chin diapers” he refuses to wear on his mouth and nose make that much impossible. Some characters hole up at home, some make an exception just for church, some try to continue their lives as normally as they can; all are pissed off. Except Cartman, of course. The densest concentration of enraged ignorance in the western pop-cultural canon is thriving during these dark times, ditching at-home computer learning and jabbing everyone out of his way with a six-foot social distancing stick. As an anti-exemplar for good behavior, he makes the damning suggestion that anyone having a laugh about all this suffering must care for their fellow man as little as he does.

As I suggested in an essay earlier this year, coronavirus art stands apart from dramatizations of most tragedies in that the burden belongs to everyone. Parker and Stone take that personal license and run with it, stylizing their own experience instead of trivializing someone else’s. There isn’t much funny about the tedium and death toll of this pandemic, so they mine levity from profane harebrained invention. The origin of the germ, for instance, comes from Stan Marsh getting Mickey Mouse’s sloppy seconds after the Disney mascot fornicates with a bat in a dirty alley while on a Chinese vacation. (Turns out the real source was actually a pangolin that Marsh also defiled on holiday in Wuhan.) The only cure? Smoking marijuana laced with Randy’s reproductive material, naturally. Though one moment depicts the police murder of an unarmed black child with discomfiting flippancy, for the most part, this inspired idiocy comes as a tonic.

All the semen jokes leave a viewer unprepared for the most valid bid for poignancy Parker and Stone have cared to make in some time. The script constantly questions the necessity of its own existence, making repeated declarations that no one gives a damn about a “pandemic special” at such a dire juncture, a term used in context to refer to Randy’s 10% markdown on marijuana. But it justifies itself by playing up the fact that this is a show about children, even if they have foul mouths decades beyond their years. Kids have been hit hard, forced to contend with psychological stressors that have done a number on plenty of grownups, only made worse by youth. Adults can mark time until everything resumes, but those grade-school summers are finite and precious. Kyle’s statement that “my generation is being denied our lives” and his later assessment of online school as “a freakin’ joke – we’re not even learning anything” articulate a frustration more mature than anyone that age should have to cope with. A surprisingly affecting show of contemporary despair, from the cartoon famed in part for the sentient, talking Christmastime poop.

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