This review contains spoilers for South Park.
South Park Season 22 Episode 6 and 7
Just a decade ago, it felt like we were starting to think more critically about our impact on the environment. Al Gore was winning awards for warning us about an impending disaster. We were buying Prius cars and recycling. It was progress, but it sadly wasn’t enough. The reality is climate change is gradually compromising our planet. It may not come as rapidly as the day after tomorrow or two days before the day after tomorrow, but we’re reaching a critical tipping point at a time when the federal government is making decisions that seem to take us further away from solving the problem.
The urgency must be weighing on Matt Stone and Trey Parker. In its two most recent episodes, South Park finally address climate change head on, using ManBearPig as allegory for made-man global warming. Based on the show’s own history of satirizing both deniers and those working to prevent climate change, the two-episode arc can be interpreted as a mea culpa of sorts – they’re own “WE DIDN’T LISTEN” moment.
South Park’s suspect record on the topic goes back to 2005 when it parodied the climate change blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow in an episode titled “Two Days Before The Day After Tomorrow.” In the episode, the government and townspeople scramble to assign blame for a disaster that, in the end, is wrongly assumed to be caused by global warming. Stone and Parker made the episode to take pot shots at a film they loathe, but it was also South Park’s response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It captured both the panic of being late to a problem of our own creation (“WE DIDN’T LISTEN”) and the futility in squabbling over the response when people’s lives have already been deeply impacted by a natural disaster. Yet climate change and the impact we have on our environment was at best an afterthought. Despite the show mocking climate change deniers, from the rednecks blaming Osama Bin Laden to pushback from any “cliche dissenting Republican,” the adults refuse to listen to Stan when he says the disaster is his fault, instead taking responsibility as a community only after the government falsely uses Crab People as another scapegoat. It was par for the course at the time – the citizens of South Park routinely misinterpreting the boys’ moral lesson as justification to continue their comfortable way of life.
A year later in an underrated 2006 episode of South Park titled “Smug Alert,” Gerald buys an eco-friendly Prius to feign social responsibility when all he really wants to do show off how progressive he is. One problem begets another when Stan convinces everyone to be environmentally consciousness and buy hybrid cars, which creates the perfect storm of fart-smelling self-satisfaction. Though the episode was a giggly mix of crass parodies and gross-out humor, in hindsight you can make the argument it did more harm than good. South Park’s equal opportunity offending took aim at the smug behavior of Gerald, Hollywood elites like George Clooney, and the city of San Francisco, but it also unfairly put a stigma on hybrids, labeling that eco movement as self-righteous and problematic (the cars lead to “Global Laming”) in a way that unfairly diminished the good they were doing in the first place. In the end of the episode, boys make the point that you can drive hybrid cars without being smug, and the adults agree that they’re just not ready for it.
A few weeks after “Smug Alert” aired, Stone and Parker unleashed ManBearPig on South Park. In the fan-favorite episode, Al Gore shows up to warn the students about the threat, but no one really believes him. Now as California burns amid report, after report, after report of terrifying climate change data, South Park is saying sorry to Al Gore, and they’re ready to get cereal. The two most recent episodes, “Time To Get Cereal” and Nobody Got Cereal” continue a season-long arc of the town being impassive to school shootings, leading the police to ignore ManBearPig sightings and instead lazily conflate them as part of the ongoing and accepted culture of school violence.
South Park has been correcting some of its most problematic areas in recent seasons, spending a full season arc analyzing its role in a politically correct world, and purging characters like Mr. Hankey, who proves himself to be a real piece of shit. When it comes to the blissful ignorance of certain characters or the town as a whole, South Park has moved away from nitpicking the arguments on both sides, and is more concerned with atoning by putting the full weight of its over-the-top satire into gradually moving the town forward. No one ever said that would be easy. The folks who were not ready to give up smugness to save the environment in 2006 were no doubt impacted by climate denial rhetoric in the years since. In a world where climate change denial is given far more oxygen than it deserves, South Park literally had to rip its citizens apart by a vicious and unforgiving beast just to hammer home the point that people are still skeptical about the impact of climate change in spite of all the evidence around them.
In bringing characters like Al Gore back, there’s always the question of whether they can they do it in a way that moves the plot forward, serves whatever current issue is top of mind, and doesn’t fall into the usual South Park pitfall of being overstuffed with ambition. Though his return gets repetitive, the self-aware storyline of Al Gore only wanting an apology for being right feels like the ideal thematic middle ground of “Two Days Before The Day After Tomorrow” and “Smug Alert.” The end of “Nobody Got Cereal” sees the people of South Park finally acknowledge that they’re ready to tackle climate change, and that feels like progress. But not too much progress: They still opt to make the wrong choice in the end, which means ManBearPig will be back eventually. They couldn’t give up Red Dead Redemption 2, and we don’t blame them.
The combination of making a sequel to a fan-favorite episode, integrating a heavy social commentary on climate change and the sickening prevalence of school shootings, and professing an inseparable love for Red Dead Redemption 2 should not work. Yet somehow the arc manages to maintain its focus, have an undeniable message about greed and our commitment to making the world a better place for future generations, and be really, really funny at times. South Park can change, slowly, but on their own terms. Though it might not be fast enough to save the future if they keep renegotiating.
Chris Longo is the deputy editor and print editor of Den of Geek. You can tell him your favorite part about Red Dead Redemption 2 on Twitter @east_coastbias.