This South Park review contains spoilers.
South Park Season 23 Episode 2
One thing I’ll say for this season of South Park is, so far, they’re doing a pretty good job having their serialization cake and eating it too. The only meaningful narrative through line from the premiere to this episode is Randy becoming a mob boss for his Tegridy Farms weed business. Other than that, Kyle and Cartman return from the detention center at episode’s end, but you don’t need the context of the premiere’s events to understand what’s going on in this one.
I’m one of the rare fans of the serialization gimmick and I still find it a neat little device to have story elements carry us from one episode to the next, while still giving us a standalone plot. It’s the best of both worlds. This time, the standalone plot concerns Randy traveling to China to introduce Tegridy Farms’ weed to the market there while Stan (along with Jimmy, Butters, and Kenny) are tapped by a producer to make a biopic about their fledgling death metal band, a biopic which, they discover, also has to be crafted in such a way as to appeal to the Chinese market. It’s a good setup, as it keeps “Band in China” focused on one theme and allows both plots to naturally develop in opposite directions. As Stan’s father sells out to China and loses his integrity, Stan finds his through his metal band that he formed directly out of his hatred for his father. It’s smart plotting, tying the father-son issues to the episode’s greater ethical questions.
Unfortunately, the details of the story within the larger plots are quite basic. Both Randy and Stan’s plots are one-note and rely on basic escalation. Stan agrees to make the biopic and then, in scene after scene, comes to realize just how intolerably intrusive the Chinese government is going to be with his creative process (one unfunny scene where a Chinese general looms over Stan’s shoulder as he tries to write a script is notably boring). In contrast, even after witnessing the atrocities of a Chinese prison firsthand, Randy goes to increasingly more deplorable lengths to appease the Chinese government. Some of Randy’s scenes are especially lazy, feeling almost unfinished or slapped together. A scene where he stands before a Chinese court and tries to get them involved with bringing Tegridy to China is particularly bizarre. It’s not clear what they think of his pitch or, indeed, if anyone in the courtroom even understands what he’s saying, but, in the next scene, he’s apparently been released from prison… somehow?
But that, too, is unclear because in the next scene Randy (plus a slew of Marvel and Disney characters) are packed into a random room with Chinese characteristics (it’s red and has ornate designs on the wall) as belligerent Mickey Mouse from past seasons shows up to chew everyone out. It’s not at all apparent where the hell this takes place or why it’s happening. The plot just needed Randy to hook up with Mickey Mouse, so, suddenly, here we are. I was also never fully on board with the episode’s odd conceit that all these Disney-owned fictional characters are real and exist within the world. They technically get away with it because South Park has at this point completely obliterated the line between fiction and reality, but plopping fictional characters into the world still seems like something that shouldn’t be done so liberally.
Fine, throw a few in; I can buy that Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Piglet are all characters within this episode. But apparently Thor, Jack Sparrow, a random Stormtrooper, and a whole bunch of other fictional properties are flesh and blood people who fly coach. It just makes you wonder how fiction works in the South Park universe. Once you invent fictional characters they just come alive and walk among us, I guess? However, the biggest sin of “Band in China” is that it’s just not funny. I laughed only once, when, in filming a scene for the biopic, Jimmy announced he was both homosexual and addicted to cocaine. Other than that, while I get that South Park is a legacy shock humor show, it’s now more like it’s running on shock fumes. Mickey Mouse is back to yell at us (yawn) and I guess what you’d call the centerpiece of the episode is Randy’s violent murder of Winnie the Pooh. It’s funny because he’s a cute kids’ cartoon character and we’re watching him get graphically garotted? Fine, whatever. I can appreciate the little wink of the music producer asking Stan and co., “What are you kids, from the nineties?” but it still didn’t get a laugh out of me. And though the return of boy band Fingerbang makes sense narratively, the execution is flat and perfunctory.
Also, I guessed the reveal that Stan’s band was going to play death metal before it happened. Lame. “Band in China” gets points for tackling an issue that doesn’t get a ton of attention. As the music producer says, “Even the PC Babies don’t seem to mind and the PC Babies care about everything.” It is a genuine concern that much of our country’s major entertainment is being diluted by how it will be received by a market with a censor-happy government. Unfortunately, the medium is the message and this message is let down by lazy plotting and tired shock humor.
Joe Matar watches a lot of cartoons and a lot of sitcoms. He’s obsessed with story structure so that’s what all his reviews are about. Joe also writes about video games on occasion. He has an MA in English if you can believe it. Read more of his work here. Follow Joe on Twitter for more fun @joespirational!