[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the “South Park Vaccination Special.”]
Is “South Park” going through an existential crisis? Two episodes aren’t typically enough to elicit concern over a decades-old series already renewed through 2022, but when these two episodes are the sole output in 15 months, one has to wonder. Both hourlong specials — last October’s much-ballyhooed “Pandemic Special” and Wednesday night’s “Vaccination Special” — tell self-reflective stories set in our especially trying times, and both put not only this country on blast for its abhorrent pandemic response, but they also take a hard look at the show itself.
The first special utilizes Randy Marsh’s pot stand as a surrogate for the series, titling his highly lucrative new strain “the Pandemic Special” in order to question whether it’s right for some businesses (like TV) to profit off a pandemic while so many others went under. The answer: So long as it’s not hurting anybody, why not? Homebound distractions are in demand, even if they feel inadequate, and TV provides a service, even if prioritizing business over people is part of what prolonged the pandemic anyway. (Randy is also patient zero, after being urged into bestiality by corporate America’s most popular mascot, Mickey Mouse.)
Arriving on the so-called pan-iversary (which can’t be a coincidence) the second special is less provocative, but even more meta. With vaccinations being doled out in “South Park,” everyone is clamoring for a shot. The local Walgreens has transformed into a nightclub, complete with a bouncer at the door and a long line outside. Each person tries to plead their case for admission: “I’m a chain smoker! My wife is 39 pounds overweight!” But nothing works. The only people permitted inside are the elderly, who make the most of their sudden freedom by peeling out in the school parking lot and mocking kids who have to keep wearing masks.
Meanwhile, Mr. Garrison returns to town hoping things are getting back to normal, but the townsfolk aren’t so welcoming of the teacher who turned into Trump. Trying to get to the bottom of their distrust, Mr. Garrison inadvertently triggers his QAnon supporters (“the Whites”), causing them to form a private tutoring company that brainwashes half the kids in town. Soon, Mr. Garrison (and his secret service agent named Mr. Service) ends up questioning the Q leader until his hair-brained conspiracy theories lead them to the truth: There are “two sons of bitches” controlling everything in South Park, and they’re trying to discredit QAnon by making them look too silly to be taken seriously. As Mr. White is trying to explain himself, a mouse cursor hovers over his body, clicks, and he suddenly changes shape. His clothes turn into a pink dress, his neck turns into his butt, and then his whole body transforms into a human-sized dick and balls.
It’s clear the people he’s talking to — the “two sons of bitches” at the top of QAnon’s conspiracy — are Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of “South Park.” If the shapeshifting Mr. White wasn’t enough, the animation soon divides into individual layers, pivoting to a side-view of the 2-D models so all you can see are thin colors waiting to be put back together. “Wow, OK, what the hell is this?” Mr. Garrison says. When the animation returns to normal, Mr. Service has been transformed into the teacher’s old puppet friend Mr. Hat. Inspired, Mr. Garrison asks, “How would you like to make a deal?”
As he returns to town, dragging the still-penis-shaped Mr. White behind him, Mr. Garrison sees pandemonium. Posing as a senior-aide group called “Kommunity Kids,” Kyle, Stan, Cartman, and Kenny have stolen a batch of vaccines to give to their teachers. But the brainwashed QAnon kids (who formed their own group called Lil’ Qties) won’t let them into the school, because they believe the vaccines are poison, and the rest of the townsfolk have gathered to buy, steal, or beg for the vaccines in order to use them themselves. Only Mr. Garrison and his deal can save the town, but he’s really only concerned with saving himself.
There is no President Biden in “South Park”; there’s no political force trying to unite people. But the special still mocks the idea that America should come together after an especially trying 2020 and celebrate their own survival. Midway through the episode, after Mr. Garrison orders Mr. Service to murder a QAnon “tutor” trying to replace him, little Craig says to no one in particular, “I guess 2021 is going to be just like 2020.” Even more pointed is the episode’s ending, when Mr. Garrison’s main takeaway from the pandemic, from the election, from life in America is to “make sure you’re on the side of the people with the most power.” He then unveils his deal with “South Park’s” creators: vaccines for all the adults, so long as he gets his old job back.
Courtesy of Comedy Central
It doesn’t matter that a teacher has to die for that to happen. It doesn’t matter that the kids still could contract COVID. What happened before, no matter how selfish and vile, simply doesn’t matter. All that matters is that things feel normal again in “South Park” — even though they really, really don’t.
Two specials, two self-exams — two zealous attacks on Disney — and two endings that reflect a wariness of their own existence. After so much change over the past four years, in the world and in “South Park,” Stone and Parker may have felt the need to put a few fundamental pieces of their sitcom back in place. One way or another, Mr. Garrison needed to return to his old self. The boys had to get back to school. The story has to find fresh topics to skewer that weren’t dictated to them by the president, by the news, or by the pandemic. But in the “Vaccination Special,” the “South Park” creators seem to be questioning what they’re losing by setting “South Park” back to its pre-Trump, pre-pandemic roots.
The children have always been the soul of the show, and the special ends with a break-up. The four friends’ “bro-ship” fractures, divided by their differing post-pandemic perspectives. Cartman is still Cartman, trying to get whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. But Stan and Kyle can’t reckon with a world routinely reinforcing Cartman’s selfish attitudes; Kyle keeps trying to do the right thing, but even he gives in to his parents’ pleas for the vaccine over the objectively more-deserving teachers. Stan is much further gone, and his general disillusionment can be heard when he says, “If you ask me, this whole pandemic has been a giant waste of time.”
The most baleful forces in “South Park” (Mr. Garrison and Cartman) want things to go back to normal. The purest purveyors of good can’t accept that it ever can. People are fighting over who should get vaccinated first. People have to choose between their personal health and their livelihood. More than half a million people are dead, and the country barely stopped to acknowledge it. As always, the kids see the truth while the adults just do whatever they want in order to get by. Therein lies the quandary facing the show and its mission going forward. Have things changed too much for anything to go back? Are there too many targets, too many tragedies, and too much happening to the soul of America for any degree of satire to have an effect?
Yes, Stone and Parker can do whatever they want with “South Park.” They have the power. But if America chooses to pretend everything can just go back to normal, what good is the power to pretend otherwise?