The pandemic’s reach is about to extend to scripted television. With production slowly ramping back up to fill a fall programming block the networks cannot afford to see empty, fiction writers who’ve been living under social distancing guidelines and shelter-at-home orders are being asked to put pen to paper and crank out some good old-fashioned entertainment again. Like their peers in late-night and on the nightly news, these TV authors are now being asked to mine their imagination for storylines that make for must-see TV.
Viewers have long fretted over how, exactly, specific series will grapple with COVID-19’s disruptive nature, or if it’s even in select shows’ DNA to address the mask-wearing elephant in the room. Only “Superstore” can handle COVID! No, this is “It’s Always Sunny’s” time to shine! But if series like Netflix’s “Social Distance” and “films” like HBO’s “Coastal Elites” are any indicator, odds are there will be more pandemic-infused specials than anyone can anticipate.
So kudos to “South Park” for being one of the first scripted series to tackle America’s new normal head-on, all the while making the case against its very existence. The hourlong special had plenty of targets — from trigger-happy cops to a bat-raping Mickey Mouse — but it only really dialed in on its own relevance in these trying times. And in the end, “The Pandemic Special” is only here because TV is an essential — and still lucrative — service.
Wednesday night’s unofficial season opener (Season 24 won’t actually start until later this year) begins with Randy Marsh (voiced by co-creator Trey Parker) calling a town meeting to announce his weed company, Tegridy Farms, is offering a pandemic special. You see, Randy knows that his community is hurting. Shops are closed. Kids are attending school via Zoom. The Grim Reaper is riding through town on a tricycle, leading the elderly and enfeebled to their graves.
So Randy wants to help. His weed business is booming — all the marijuana tchotchkes within the Marsh home are an excellent, unspoken nod to the family’s recent boon — so he can afford to cut costs ever so slightly, especially when it means even more customers will come calling. But as the days roll on and the special sells out, Randy starts to reckon with the reasons for his good fortune. Flashbacks to a fateful trip to China spoil his high spirits, as Randy remembers getting baked with Disney’s top mouse, who later goads him into having sex with a bat and a creature from the armadillo family called a pangolin. Scientists have traced the origins of COVID back to a human-to-animal relationship, and they just need to know which human fornicated with a pangolin in order to produce a vaccine.
Yes, in the world of “South Park,” Randy is patient zero. So when strangers walk up to him and thank Randy for his Pandemic Special, saying how it really helped them get over losing their job or their wife’s death, he doesn’t feel so good about making money off their misfortune. Sure, they needed an escape from reality, and he gave it to them, but at what cost? Chaos has overtaken South Park. Townsfolk argue over how to wear their masks or if they’re even useful. The kids have been sent back to school, but since the teachers refused to return for safety reasons, now the out-of-work police officers are trying their hand at finger painting. (“This might be our last chance at a job,” a detective tells his men.”)
“South Park” obviously doesn’t put all the blame for America’s current crisis on escapist television or any form of self-serving complacency; Mr. Garrison’s President Trump pops in for two key scenes: once to explain why he’s not taking any action to stem the pandemic (it’s fulfilling his campaign promise to kill Mexicans), and later to literally burn down humanity’s best hope at finding a vaccine. (“Don’t forget to vote! Big election coming up,” he says, flamethrower in hand, a burning carcass at his feet.) Honestly, seeing the series be so blunt toward Trump’s role in destroying America is one of the episode’s most welcome moments. The “both sides” argument “South Park” posed before the 2016 election still hangs heavy over its head, years after the idea of choosing between a Turd Sandwich and a Giant Douche has been so thoroughly and embarrassingly debunked.
But few other points strike a nerve. Cartman’s quest to keep kids from going back to school (purely because he’s figured out how to avoid Zoom learning, thus putting himself on permanent vacation) fizzles out. The army of police officers don’t do anything surprising, nor is the show ready to take a stand beyond critiquing the cops’ propensity for violence. (Token, the school’s lone Black student, getting shot in the middle of class is a quick, predictable joke that doesn’t hit the right note.) Stan’s breakdown is briefly affecting; after more than half a year in lockdown, he breaks into a Build-a-Bear workshop so Butters’ can have a normal birthday. But he can’t get the stuffing machine to work, and eventually crumbles. “I just want my life back.”
Honing in on that core human instinct — and contradicting it with Trump’s malicious refusal to help — is as close as “South Park: The Pandemic Special” gets to any sort of revelation about what Americans are collectively going through right now. It’s not nothing, but it’s also too broad to be the kind of eye-opening satire the series used to pull off, and we’ve seen similar sentiments expressed with greater impact in shows like “Mythic Quest: Quarantine.” Like many of us who’ve had to take a hard look in the mirror of late, whether out of necessity or sheer boredom, “South Park” proves most effective at analyzing itself. Why do we need a scripted comedy special about the pandemic? Well, people need a break. Reality is exhausting. But then shouldn’t the special not mention the pandemic? Shouldn’t it be something pure and genuine and uplifting? Maybe, but that’s not “South Park’s” style. It’s a topical show, and there’s no way it could ignore a topic that literally shut down the world.
So, in the end, the special comes back to Randy. As he’s about to confess everything to his wife, who’s been stubbornly against this “Pandemic Special” the whole time, Randy sees that Sharon has a mustache on her face. That means she, too, partook in his Pandemic Special. Even those who pretend to know better are still buying in. “Never mind,” Randy tells her. “I think maybe I’m going to do a few more specials.”
Join the club.
“South Park: The Pandemic Special” premiered Wednesday, September 30 and is now streaming via HBO Max.