Over its 19 seasons and counting, “South Park” has almost always managed to create insightful parallels between scenarios otherwise considered unrelated. And it has certainly attempted that, with varying degrees of success, in every episode, and the comparisons are often as absurdly fun as they are astutely persuasive. So, it’s rather fitting that in kicking off its 20th season, “South Park” managed to tie together Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, J.J. Abrams’ ability to create beloved reboots, the 2016 presidential election, sexist internet trolls, Matt Lauer’s inept moderating, Donald Drumpf’s secret desire to lose the election and, well, ‘member berries.
[Editor’s Note: Spoilers below for “South Park’s” Season 20 premiere, “Member Berries.”]
What started as a few grade school volleyball players pleading for help with an obnoxious Internet troll quickly spiraled into a national crisis surrounding the national anthem. Instead of identifying the harasser (thank you, Principal P.C.), Congress’ aptly ignorant solution was to hire J.J. Abrams to reboot the national anthem into a patriotic song everyone could get behind. (His light signal communication method complete with lens flare was a nice touch.) Back in Colorado, everyone at South Park Elementary assumed Cartman was the troll, especially as he baited female students with superficially supportive lines like, ” Girls rule, women are funny. Get over it you guys.”
But that wasn’t the case. By episode’s end, we learned that even though Eric seems to relish his role as a disrupter, it was Kyle’s dad, Gerald, who has been plaguing the South Park populace as “skankhunt42.” What could have possibly led the typically docile father down such a dark path? Well, we won’t find out until at least next week — again, praise be to Trey Parker and Matt Stone for embracing a serialized structure these past few seasons — but there seem to be some clues within another dad’s storyline this week.
Despite all those sexy keywords likely to be seen in headlines across the internet — “‘South Park’ takes on [Insert Famous Name/Inciting Incident Here]” — it looks like the creators’ broader target in Season 20 will be how Americans’ addiction to nostalgia could lead to our downfall. Incited by the presidential nominees, Randy Marsh (Stan’s dad) was introduced to the “superfood” ‘member berries as a means to sooth his worried mind. These berries don’t just taste good. They speak to Randy about times of old — better times. Simpler times. Times when “Ghostbusters” was just a silly Bill Murray movie and “Star Wars” was some wildly imaginative space fun.
But these ‘member berries also serve the present. All of the movies they mention are either being rebooted or extended right now, so when Randy is reminded of how he felt when seeing Chewbacca, it’s impossible to distinguish if he’s thinking of the ’70s or “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” ‘Member berries create memory associations that seem innocent and soothing, allowing Randy to relive the good ‘ol days even during an infuriating present. But then they go further, and “South Park” starts to illustrate the threats posed by nostalgia.
Arguing that nostalgia is as manipulative as our political candidates — and equally dangerous when wielded by the wrong hands — is a comparison that may not sit well with fans of “Stranger Things,” but that’s where TV fans likely found themselves when Randy laid back on his couch, held a vine of ‘member berries and was shocked when their seemingly innocent musings about Chewbacca and the Bionic Man turned to xenophobic musings on Mexicans. “‘Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?” the berries said. “And ‘member when marriage was just between a man and a woman? Remember feeling safe? ‘Member no ISIS? ‘Member Reagan?”
This through-line seems like ample fodder for content throughout the season, and, most importantly, maintains the series’ reputation for courageous conviction. Between the presidential race and its surrounding elements, the national stage is awash with easy topics to eviscerate. “South Park” never takes the easy route nor does it ever take it easy on anyone. For that, it’s become a voice worth hearing every year, and one we’ll be eager to engage with throughout Season 20.