It’s understandable for any series, let alone one like South Park, to develop a level of cynicism when it’s been on for over two decades. South Park has turned out numerous episodes like “Cancelled,” “You’re Getting Old,” and “Unfulfilled” that have all looked at the growing pains of not just South Park, but also its creators. There have been a handful of episodes that exhibit such self-criticism that it’s sometimes easy to wonder if Trey Parker and Matt Stone are still truly in love with the series or just going through the motions.
“The Pandemic Special” looks at a lot of the same themes, but with a newfound level of sincerity and tenderness. Other world events have both fueled and affected many storylines throughout the series, but it feels like the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic have made an impact on Parker and Stone in a more significant way than anything in the past. This past season has hinted at how the world needs ‘tegrity, but now South Park genuinely means it.
One indicator that a change in tone may be present for South Park is in the return of the character Death, someone who hasn’t been seen since South Park season 1 episode 6. Satan and Jesus have frequently shown up over the course of South Park, but despite the omnipresence of death in the series, this depiction of the character hasn’t returned until now. It’s unclear if Death will continue to turn up through this next season of South Park, but his presence in “The Pandemic Special” adds a creeping sense of dread that’s also present in real life. Death still gets his own jokes, but he’s often looming in the background of scenes as a way to end an eerie note to punchlines. He forces the audience to think about mortality in a way that South Park hasn’t asked of the audience in a long time.
“The Pandemic Special” still features many absurd and extreme visuals, but it applies a sincerity to not just the physically ill, but also those that are being mentally affected by the pandemic, as well as the topic of police brutality. It even takes a brief moment to directly tell the audience to vote. It feels like the series actually wants to help and instill change.
This earnestness doesn’t mean that South Park has lost its edge by any means. “The Pandemic Special” is still an episode where a child gets viciously blown apart by police gunfire and a man engages in sex with wild animals, but it also asks some sincere questions in a way that it hasn’t before. The previous examples of apathetic episodes reflect more on whether Parker and Stone want to continue to make the series, but “The Pandemic Special” constantly asks the question of whether there’s even a need for entertainment like this anymore in this newly changed landscape. It questions if this “The Pandemic Special” is helpful in how it’s a distraction, but it also wants the audience to examine if it can actually be destructive and bury what’s really important right now.
South Park is still contracted for three more seasons so it’s in no danger of ending soon, but this recent enlightenment towards whether the show is important right now could still drastically affect the upcoming season. The events and fallout of COVID-19 feel like they’ve opened up Parker and Stone’s eyes in new ways. Cartman even does the right thing at the end of “The Pandemic Special,” which is an extreme rarity in the series. The brash content of “The Pandemic Special” is proof that the show isn’t in any danger of becoming any tamer, but it still means the upcoming 24th season could retain this more sincere sensibility as it looks at telling stories that help those that are in need just as much as ones that take down those power.
Season 24 of South Park will have a lot to examine when it returns, but it looks like it will be just as interesting to see how it unpacks these issues and the questions that it asks.