This South Park review contains spoilers.
South Park: Season 21, Episode 7
Giving Cartman a girlfriend is one of the funniest character moves South Park has ever pulled. It was fun to watch him turn into a happier, better person for a little while and then even more fun to see his true prickish self re-emerge. I just love how much he hates being in a relationship. I think I would’ve enjoyed it for quite a while longer if the relationship existed mostly as a running gag (Heidi shows up, Eric’s face falls, he puts the bare minimum effort into responding to her, and then she leaves). However, “Doubling Down” pushes their dysfunctional relationship to a new stage.
It’s admirable that Matt and Trey feel the need to evolve Cartman and Heidi, but it comes as the cost of the comedy. As a simple running gag, Cartman’s treatment of Heidi wasn’t too severe and could be laughed at, but this episode forces us to remember that Cartman is, in fact, a dangerous sociopath. He’s transparently abusive here, psychologically and even, after a fashion, physically, as he fools Heidi, a vegan, into introducing meat into her diet.
To the show’s credit, it openly acknowledges that Cartman is being abusive. It doesn’t really seem to be playing it for laughs. Unfortunately, the end result is still a dark, unfunny episode.
The thing is that the B story is perhaps even darker, following a few days in the life of President Garrison. This is the first time this season has taken such direct potshots at the Trump presidency. For the people who felt like it was South Park’s job to satirize Trump and Co., this is what that looks like. In a way, they delivered. Very few comic critiques of Trump dig into how truly dark his presidency is and what horrible things it portends for the world (the only other show doing this that I can think of is Comedy Central’s own The President Show).
“Doubling Down” doesn’t shy away from depicting Trump/Garrison as a force of psychotic evil, demonstrated in the South Park universe by him violently raping Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell (recall that Garrison is the “fuck ‘em to death” candidate). I appreciate them bringing in these three real-life public figures. South Park is stuck in this weird situation where their Trump is still part-Garrison, so bringing in the real-world politicians surrounding Trump makes the depiction at least a little more scathing. Also, a lot of comedy gets obsessed with Trump, overlooking the cavalcade of villains abetting him, so it’s good to see Ryan, Pence, and McConnell thoroughly debased.
The analogy is dead obvious: these politicians bend over and take whatever Trump gives them. In South Park, this is made literal. However, again, it’s not funny. It’s more disturbing (and there’s some stuff thrown in there about Garrison saying the n-word to top it all off). But maybe that’s the way it should be? Probably the most subversive thing comedy can do is not laugh at this presidency, but show how unsettling it is. But, well—much as I hate Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Mike Pence—I still can’t say I had a fantastic time witnessing the sexual abuse of their cartoon avatars.
Plus, both plots are let down by the storytelling. The cleverest thing the episode does is thematically parallel the A and B storylines, showing that both are about abusive relationships. But neither storyline progresses organically. Cartman secretly feeding Heidi meat and then making fun of her for being fat feels like an especially random way to demonstrate his manipulative cruelty. Even more random is that Cartman finds out Heidi left him for Kyle from Token’s dad, of all people, in a scene that seems inserted purely to let Cartman be racist some more.
Furthermore, Cartman’s “getting angry at Kyle” montage feels like it’s there to eat up time. I also don’t buy that Cartman got Heidi to believe Jewish stereotypes so easily at the end. I get that he’s been manipulating her all this time, but it’s still out of character for her to accept racist ideology so readily (unless maybe we’re going to learn more about how he convinced her in a future episode). Finally, all told, nothing much happens in Garrison’s plot. He rapes Ryan, McConnell, and Pence; they consider ousting him; and then I guess he rapes them again.
I didn’t laugh once throughout “Doubling Down,” but at this point in the series’ life, that’s not necessarily out of the ordinary for me and South Park. That said, I’m one of the few people who thought the previous, serialized season was one of their best, even though I rarely laughed, enjoying it almost exclusively on its storytelling merits. “Doubling Down” isn’t funny or well-plotted. It’s relentlessly dark and cruel and—though I can appreciate some of the darkness of the Garrison plot and enjoy some of the broader plot developments about the Cartman, Heidi, and Kyle love triangle—the storytelling is ultimately too scattershot.