I’m gonna be honest, I’ve been lukewarm about South Park since the 2016 election. I still love the show to but it’s really clear to me that Parker and Stone had the wind knocked out of them by the fact that the election ruined their season long story-Arc for season 20. The seasons since have really felt half hearted. You’ll get one or two great episodes per season but there’s nothing as sprawling or topical as the Black Friday Trilogy or ALL of Season 19’s Social Justice/PC Principal story-arc.
As such, I went into this season’s first episodes expecting it to be more of the same. Much of what I was bothered by in the show seems to still be moving around in the miasma. The Tegrity Farms joked, which felt played out two seasons ago, is still being drudged up for goodness knows what reason. The show’s predelection for coming up with one REALLY nasty joke and stretching it to the breaking point also reared it’s head and hovered over the entire episode (I’m REALLY sick of Randy Marsh episodes…).
That said, I actually think The Pandemic Special airs on the better side of recent episodes! Like all recent South Park, it a topical raising of our current world. The episode is all about the COVID lockdowns and spoofs every aspect of the pandemic from Zoom meetings to people refusing to wear their masks and swearing at Dr. Fauci. The show’s main gimmick is how it assigns the various personality types that have emerged from the lockdown onto the cast.
Butters and Stan are suffering from massive cabin fever. Most of the adults are paranoid and screaming at one another for not wearing their masks correctly. Cartman naturally loves being stuck at home and being forced to do nothing. The president Trump standin has decided to do nothing about the plague because the high number of minority deaths “fulfills his campaign promise to kill Mexicans” (one of the funnier jokes of the episode).
While this is happening, the ever opportunities Randy is doing his best to profit off of the pandemic by selling curbside weed to bored people stuck in their homes. The episode’s ridiculous A plot thus begins when it’s suggested that one of Randy’s misadventures accident helped cause the COVID outbreak. Thus he goes on an adventure to hide the evidence and possibly discover his own cure to the virus. It all ends up being pretty gross and unpleasant but the story has its moments.
The B-stories in the episode to me where the special shines. A lot of prominent people criticize South Park for being a cool and apathetic show that doesn’t take real life issues seriously. If there were ever an episode to disprove that claim, it’s this one. Right from the outset Randy’s wife criticized Randy for “profiting” off of such a terrible tragedy. All the while in the episode as characters bicker and fight, you see people being wheeled off in body bags while their loved ones cry.
This is the best of South Park’s ethos: everyone is stupid but life is still precious and people ought to try to do better. It all builds up to a ridiculous conclusion that ultimately builds up to a sincere moment of emotional honesty and catharsis that honesty almost made me cry. At the height of the chaos, Stan stands up in front of a crowd with tears in his eyes and pours his heart out saying that he just desperately wants life to go back to the way it was.
Right there, South Park actually did something powerful. In one image, it captured the heart of pain and repression that’s driving all of the insanity at the heart of the lockdowns. Six months from the start of the government mandated lockdowns, society is still reeling and paranoid hundreds of thousands of Americans are left to pick up the shattered remains of their broken livelihoods and finances. Too many mistakes have been made and no consequences are going to be dished out. All that’s left is trauma and a great fear that the future is coming to an end.
This is South Park’s great gift as a series. They read the zeitgeist better than anybody and they’re willing to spoof anyone regardless of what they believe or what claim to legitimacy they hold. There’s a lot of bull crap spinning in the air right now but in cutting to the heart of the issue, it offered a moment of genuine heart bleeding release and honesty. I can only hope the rest of the season is this good.