This South Park review contains spoilers.
South Park Season 22 Episode 9
The Simpsons, in its old age, seems to only get attention for accurately predicting the future. Less credit is due to the show’s psychic ability than its impressive longevity, which South Park famously snarked that if you name it, The Simpsons have likely done it already.
South Park hasn’t been quite as predictive during its 22-season run — in recent weeks they’ve gone as far to apologize for getting that whole silly global warming thing wrong. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker finally beat The Simpsons this week by forecasting the future faster than its animation rivals ever have. In last night’s episode, “Unfulfilled,” an Amazon fulfillment center comes to South Park, and a workplace accident caused by an automated machine leads to a worker’s strike. Less than 24 hours later, news broke of a real-life incident where 24 Amazon workers were hospitalized to due to a malfunctioning robot releasing bear spray repellant in a warehouse. I wish anyone involved in the accident a speedy recovery… but real life outdid parody on this one. Bear spray!
Was it caused by mechanical malfunction, human error, or an evil spirit inhabiting the machine and using bear spray against unsuspecting human targets? If Amazon CEO and fledgling supervillain Jeff Bezos has his way, we may never know the truth. What we do know is these incidents will continue to occur when Amazon’s workforce is working under unacceptable conditions for low wages. Like other problems that have plagued the town of South Park this year–school shootings and global warming as seen through the allegorical lens of ManBearPig–the workforce being bullied by big business is fixable, yet some people seem resigned to accepting the status quo.
The episode begins with Butters beautifying his bike for the annual Bike Parade, something only a little dweeb like Butters would get excited about. Stephen Stotch wants to provide for Butters, who’s getting the bike parts off Amazon Prime. So Stephen busts his ass working at the new Amazon fulfillment center, where most of the town now works. Everyone is happy to have employment in this remote Colorado mountain town, but the job is monotonous and has long hours, not to mention they have to work alongside robots who, let’s face it, are only a few years away from replacing them entirely.
The crux of the episode is an incident where a worker gets caught between the robots and eventually packaged up into an Amazon Prime box. The company blames human error, further disgruntling an already irritated workforce. It results in a strike, one that Stephen disagrees with. His heart is in the right place as he wants to provide for his family, but the episode makes a strong statement in the town coming together to fight for their labor rights and for higher wages. South Park almost never plays for dramatic tension, but it’s used effectively in “Unfulfilled” to the point where I was just as engaged in the story as I was in the jokes. Topicality has been king for this series for a over a decade now, but this was a universal story that could take place in South Park or any town that almost solely relies on one business for its economic stability.
When the jokes were specific to Amazon, they did land; the injured worker spouting sound, pro-labor rhetoric from the inside of a shipping box; Space Man Jeff Bezos being depicted as a telepathic being straight out of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone; Trey Parker’s epic songs about working at the company played during the montages. It was also great to see the boys band together with Cartman, in a self-aware moment, poking fun at the show getting away from having the boys be grouped together for adventures. Something I’ve continually wrote about in my South Park reviews is how isolating the boys into their own storylines has hurt the show at times. While “Unfulfilled” didn’t give them a ton of screen time to achieve that, it’s clear they’re setting up for a big finale.
We’re so used to seeing the town rally together for the wrong reasons (rabble rabble) or in opposition of each other that it was a magical moment for South Park unite. The show tends to overly commit to fantastical elements (you can draw parallels to the Walmart or Mark Zuckerberg episodes), but this stayed grounded outside of Bezo’s head and was far more enjoyable for it. It also shares themes with one of the year’s best films, I’m Sorry To Bother You, which used magical realism to convey a rebellious pro-labor message. The film’s director, Boots Riley, has said in interviews that a revolution in this country will come when a workforce can “control the wealth that we create with our labor.” Like in that film, or as the town of South Park has learned, our future doesn’t have to be so easily predictable. South Park is here in the present, and it knows there’s power in numbers, even if the opposition has bear repellant.