This South Park review contains spoilers.
South Park Season 22 Episode 1
I feel for Sharon Marsh. “This is crazy,” I repeatedly say to no one as I scroll through Twitter and thump my desk while I avoid writing this review. “Why is no one talking about this?” I screech while shaking my fist in the air. That could be a screenshot of my life at any point in the past three years. It could encompass various instances of moral or ethical bankruptcy, or unremitting tragies. Even today, during a historic low moment, it feels like we can still plunge further into these depths, like we’re on an endless search for whatever the inverse of a zenith is. As much as we want to take a break from the news cycle, it’s entertainment, comedy in particular, that reflects back truth and helps contextualize our current reality. It only helps, though, if it stays on message.
It’s frustrating to see South Park, now in its 22nd season, ask: Is everything really as bad as it’s being made out to be? Is Sharon Marsh overreacting?
No! Fuck no. Absolutely fucking not. The opening scene of the South Park Season 22 premiere, “Dead Kids,” emphatically says as much. On what should be a normal day of school where Cartman and Stan fail a math quiz, a school shooting breaks out. The teacher and students carry on like this is a normal occurrence. In America, it is. And it happens again. And again. And Sharon seems to be the only person in the town horrified by this. What used to be an earth-shattering event is now commonplace. It’s easier for the residents to fix an eyesore of a playground than come to terms with children dying in a place where they’re supposed to be safe.
The opening scene was as unsettling as I imagined it would be when I saw the teaser for the episode in a way that only a cartoon can depict. Many South Park premieres have played for shock value. This felt different. It wasn’t that Matt Stone and Trey Parker lost the ability to touch a nerve. They hit a big one with this gag. It lost its shock value because we’re more desensitized to it then they probably though. Are we Randy, Stan, and Cartman, going about our lives. We should be treating gun violence like a national emergency. Instead South Park went surface level by only pointing out the lunacy of it all.
The show failed to fully realize the promise of the opening. Answering the question of Sharon overreacting with a 15-minute meditation on periods and menopause is a lazy trope that discredits what could have been a powerful statement on our collective impassivity towards school shootings. It’s the kind of plot they roll out in the middle of the season, after they’ve exhausted their initial ideas for the season.
It would be a waste of everyone’s time to dive deeper into the B-plot, which finds Cartman on his racist bullshit, once more going after Token. After a season that finally put some new life into Cartman with the Heidi arc, it’s a shame to see them revert to a played out “rivalry.” If the Black Panther bit continues into the season, it might finally be time to admit it: Cartman, as a character, has jumped the shark.
Critics of the show have called out South Park for playing it down the middle and pointing out hypocrisy on all sides, but “Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich” was an eternity ago. The show has long since deployed more pointed political critiques, some better than others. It’s turned inward in recent seasons, analyzing its own place among PC culture and how it perpetuated lewd behavior and stereotypes. They’ve asked if the town could be rebuilt to survive this woke decade or if it needs to be cancelled altogether in its most recent #cancelsouthpark marketing campaign.
It doesn’t need to be cancelled, but it’s lost its way. Sometimes it does feel good to scream out in frustration. Tweak screaming at the top of his lungs about the dangers of presidential tweeting or Sharon decrying a lack of empathy for shooting victims is cathartic. But there needs to be something a little more concrete behind it for those words to pull off an effective episode. Within the context of South Park it’s heartbreaking to see these attitudes on mass shootings prevail, but resorting to your most sophomoric tendencies is not the best way to illustrate a stance on a complex and sensitive issue, it’s simply just playing to the back of the room and hoping, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they glean a message from it.