[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “South Park” Season 22, Episode 1, “Dead Kids.”]
“South Park” says all it needs to in the title of the Season 22 premiere: “Dead Kids.” It’s a blunt, incendiary choice, and one would think the mere mention of the words would rile people up; that in a country dedicated to freedom and the pursuit of happiness, protecting our nation’s youth would be of the utmost importance; that repeated, redundant discourse about doing something would actually bring about action.
But it’s 2018, and the United States is home to 36 school shootings this year alone — and it’s only September.
Recognizing such ugliness, especially while the news is caught up in other stories, has been one of “South Park’s” most meaningful skills over 22 years. The ruthless satire does it again here, but instead of choosing multiple points to skewer with a variety of comedic barbs, “Dead Kids” repeats its message over and over again: School shootings keep happening, and instead of caring more, Americans are just starting to accept it.
The episode begins with South Park Elementary’s first school shooting — except it’s not really their first. Clearly, by the way the students and teacher just keep carrying out the lesson plan, bullets have whizzed by enough times already to make the loud bangs and sharp cries mundane. It’s just the first one this episode. While the instructor complains she can’t hear Cartman over the racket, the kids look over their math test, get up from their seats, and walk out of the school. It’s just any other day.
Except, that is, to Stan’s mom, Sharon. Waiting behind the police tape until her son comes out, she bursts through and hugs him. She tells him they’ll go home and talk all this through, but Stan and his friends are just confused. “What’s her deal?” they wonder.
The thought is echoed at home. When Sharon tells Stan to tell his dad, Randy, what happened at school, he starts by saying he failed the math test. Only after prodding does he mention the shooting. “Who shot up the school?” Randy asks. “Was it you?” “No,” Stan says. “Did you get shot?” “No.” “Well, what’s this I hear about a math quiz?”
From there, Sharon is ostracized by her hysteria. After another shooting, she tries to get a group of parents together to take action, but none of them think it’s a big deal. She goes to see a doctor and school officials, but they’re all on the same page as her husband: Sharon is just on her period, or — even worse — she’s starting menopause.
“South Park” is doing double duty here. For one, it’s emphasizing the alienation people can feel when they try to take serious matters seriously. In a world of cynicism and an ever-growing list of pressing issues, it’s becoming easier and easier to remain calm, or, even worse, tell someone else to calm down. Men have been doing this for years, so making them the ignorant idiots here is doubly pointed.
Still, it’s all based on the same contention. Our country is in crisis and complacency has been the collective response. Typically, “South Park” utilizes its B-story to tie in another topic, but not in the premiere. They just send Eric on a wild goose chase, trying to figure out why Token suddenly stopped letting him cheat off his tests. Cartman becomes convinced it’s because he never saw “Black Panther,” so now Token thinks he’s racist, but it never feels like a real conspiracy is unfurling. It’s a purposefully perfunctory arc that keeps the A-story front and center; even the climax of Eric’s quest is a dash through the school during another shooting.
To say this was one of the sharper starts to a season would be stretching it, but one has to admire the series’ persistence. By now, it’s clear “South Park” is capable of searing cultural commentary targeting a vast number of worthy screw-ups. To see the writers home in on one thing and make an audience sit with it for a full episode is a statement unto itself. The piece may not be remarkable, but America’s indifference sure is — and right now, that matters more.
“South Park” airs new episodes Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Comedy Central.