This South Park review contains spoilers.
South Park Season 23 Episode 3
The television industry is more bloated and fragmented than ever. Few shows can suck up enough oxygen to dent the news cycle in a meaningful way. Even when we get a seemingly zeitgeist-grabbing hit, shorter episode orders and long hitatuses threaten to curtail the momentum of a show (Mr. Robot, Atlanta, and Rick and Morty come to mind despite turning out quality follow-up seasons). So before we get into the specifics of “SHOTS,” the milestone 300th episode of South Park, we should appreciate the show’s longevity.
Sure, The Simpsons will continue to set the bar impossibly high, and the fact that they “did it already” will taper fanfare for any of South Park’s episodic accomplishments. While its animated rivals skate by on Halloween specials, milestone celebrations, and guest stars, South Park hangs its towel on being the lone survivor of the shock TV era — to diminishing returns. More competition and, frankly, more sophisticated and sharply-crafted comedies have entered the scene (the reports of PC Babies killing comedy have been greatly exaggerated) and eclipsed South Park in some respects. Yet exactly 300 episodes in, Matt Stone and Trey Parker are still proving they can touch a nerve with their shock comedy. More importantly, they’ve grown as the series has aged in recent seasons. There’s less punching to all sides. A prime example came in last week’s episode when they punched all the way up, roasting the entertainment industry for self-censoring their art to appease China’s authoritarian government and reap the financial benefit of the country’s 1.3 billion citizens.
Reviving the old meme that China’s president looks like Winnie the Pooh will be costly: The Chinese government and its thin-skinned, portly, honey-loving despot responded by banning South Park from the Chinese internet earlier this week, including all episodes, clips, and social media discussions of the show.
South Park has endured by being reactionary and conditioning its audience to expect responses on topics like Donald Trump, immigration, the PC police, and so on. But “Band in China” not only hit on big businesses selling their “tegridy” to the Chinese government, but it was one of the rare times South Park was ahead of the curve on an issue. Unrelated to the South Park episode, an NBA executive set off a firestorm with a single tweet last week supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters (which you can read more about here). It put the league’s multi-billion dollar deals with Chinese companies in question. Suddenly, American businesses, including Apple, have come under fire for placating the Chinese government.
None of this is to say South Park started a domino effect, but they deserve credit for broaching a topic that was under the radar or willfully ignored for too long. Stone and Parker released a statement on Monday that touched on both the South Park ban and developing NBA situation: “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the statement reads. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look like Winnie the Pooh at all. Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the great Communist Party of China. May the autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful. We good now China?”
The only bountiful harvest is on Tegridy Farms. South Park is still banned in China, but the show went on for the rest of the world when “SHOTS” premiered on Wednesday. After getting your show banned from the country with the world’s largest population, it was going to be quite difficult to come up with an even bigger episode to celebrate your landmark 300th in less than a week. We got something a little more intimate with ramifications that will hopefully turn Tegridy Farms into a hit show.
From the opening shot, the episode had some fun with the number 300, only it was celebrating Randy’s $300,000 haul since he started selling pot. After three episodes with Randy as the A plot, all we’ve really learned is that he’s using the guise of “tegridy” to justify self-serving behavior that the character has always displayed. In “SHOTS,” the honeymoon period of living on the farm completely shatters. Randy wants to position Tegridy’s success as a family one, and the family sees through it; they’re both exhausted by Randy’s behavior and embarrassed that he sold his soul to the Chinese. Randy completely ignores that fact that pot is illegal in China and the government is only using it to plant it on protesters so they can jail them.
While Randy insists he’s doing the best for his family, Ms. Cartman is bewildered about what to do with hers. Cartman is the only kid in school without a vaccine because he squeals and runs around the doctor’s office like a greased pig each visit when the shots come out. Without the shot, PC Principal cannot let him return to class. Eventually he does, spouting tied, debunked anti-vaxxer rhetoric. And from there South Park gets in a few pointed comments about how dangerous leaving your kids unvaccinated is. It’s all drowned out by a whole lot of unfocused squealin’ in the rest of the episode, though Big Mesquite Murph leaves us with one gem: “I ain’t never seen no hog like that.”
The A and B stories are really about the respective heads of the households contemplating what it means to be a provider and caretaker for a family. That’s new, deep territory I’d like to see the show explore, particularly with Ms. Cartman who doesn’t get to be much more than a punching bag for her irredeemable son. When Randy and Ms. Cartman’s storylines converge in the final act, it leaves us with a surprisingly grounded scene. Randy and Towlie also share a moment that could put Tegridy Farms on the path to redemption. This was yet again another uneven episode, a frequent complaint we’ve had here, and the silliness often doesn’t mesh with the larger themes Stone and Parker want to tackle. But the fact that we’re still engaged with South Park, that it can still makes waves in the news cycle, and that I’m actually still looking forward to seeing how these serialized threads play out this season, is nonetheless a testament to South Park’s staying power.