Warning! Spoilers for South Park Pandemic Special below!
Quick back-of-the-napkin math on major headlines since last season’s South Park finale aired on Dec. 11 2019: the impeachment trial of the sitting president, a drone strike on Iran, the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, the Democratic primaries and presidential election cycle, Brexit (well, for real this time), wildfires engulfing the west coast, police brutality protests and rioting across America, continued forgien election interference, and 200,000+ people dead from COVID-19 in the United States, with a curve nowhere near flattened, and over 1 million dead worldwide.
In a year that gets bleaker with each passing day, one can be forgiven if topical humor isn’t landing at the moment. And with South Park’s penchant for tying every storyline to the flavor of the week for better and mostly worse, returning amidst the pandemic was going to be one of the biggest challenges the show has faced since post-9/11, when the boys returned to the bus stop wearing gas masks to protect against anthrax as the town feared threats of domestic terrorism two months after the Twin Towers fell.
The fears are different in 2020 vs. November of 2001. The bus stop is empty. The enemy isn’t in hiding like Osama Bin Laden and his farty pants. South Park is a shell of itself because COVID-19 is invisible, spreads quickly, and has upended the world. Even a small mountain town in Colorado is far from immunity. That’s where we find the town in “The Pandemic Special,” the series’ first ever one-off, hour-long installment. Series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, working remotely like the rest of us who are lucky enough to be able to do so, chose to directly address our upside down present, and they do so with a grim outlook on the current state of the world.
The degree to which something like this can even land is going to vary so widely from person to person, and it’s hard to fault anyone who found the episode in poor taste from start to finish. I also imagine a lot of people are feeling like Stan or Butters do, isolated from their friends and missing the state of normalcy 2020 has ripped away from us. To that end, the return of South Park will be cathartic for some folks and maybe a welcome distraction for others, particularly as appointment television has been rare for much of the quarantine. Where I’m standing, it was exactly the middling experience we’ve come to expect from South Park, which will start its 24th season at a later date.
If you tuned in live, you were treated to dark humor and intense and disturbing subject matter—like bestiality with bats and pangolins (a hideously unfuckable creature which I had to Google). Nonetheless, a flashback informs us that the proprietor behind Tegridy Farms had sex with both animals during his short trip to Wuhan, China last season with Mickey Mouse. Scientists believe the coronavirus stems from a person coming into… close contact… with one of these animals. So with the COVID outbreak pegged square on Randy’s back, he tries to use his pandemic special as the cure, which involves jacking off onto his locally farmed strains. Feel better about the state of the world yet? Nope? OK moving on.
The boys’ subplot doesn’t fare much better. Resisting every urge to make Cartman the little incel he should probably be, South Park finds him as the most socially distanced person west of Dr. Fauci. He’ll do anything he can to avoid returning to school and seeing his friends, including gaming the Zoom classroom system with faulty internet service. Eventually the boys have to return to school and their teachers refuse, only to be replaced with the town’s cops.
It’s here where South Park’s early momentum evaporates. Burning through current events has been the show’s hallmark for a half-decade strong, but the “Pandemic Special” is about as reflective of 2020 as it gets. Everything bad is happening at once, in our world, and in the fictional town of South Park. Before we can find a uniform plan for masks and social distancing, we’re forcing the kids back to school without adequate support for teachers. When our attention turns to curbing police brutality and fighting social injustice, COVID comes roaring back. Next thing you know, the whole fucking town is ablaze. It’s a relentless dark cloud hovering over us, and none of it is particularly funny outside our windows or in South Park, save for the occasional dig at Butters or a jizz joke or two. I’ll fully admit Sharon’s mustache at the end had me going.
Where South Park saves face, and abandons the urge for “both sides-ism” that has plagued the show in the past, is its sober outlook on the self-serving motives of President Garrison / Donald Trump — who will take the entire country down with him, by literally setting it on fire, so long as it serves his own interests. He’s refusing to provide his citizens aid because the disease is killing minorities at a disproportionate rate, and he has a campaign promise about a wall to keep. One has to wonder if that was changed the morning after a debate in which the real President Trump refused to condemn white supremacists in an incoherent debate answer, telling them to “stand back and stand by.”
Cartman doing the right thing in the end barely registers, a sign that the world is knee deep in shit. South Park returned to a country so beaten down, with the bar set so low, that the ‘90s parents wringing their fists over the adult subject matter in a cartoon about children seems like the glory days by comparison.