This South Park Vaccination Special review contains spoilers.
The coronavirus pandemic has no official start date. Beginning in early 2020 (but really late 2019), the virus spread to different parts of the globe gradually. In the U.S., states dealt with its arrival on a case-by-case basis. The closest we’ll come to an anniversary, however, is likely March 11.
March 11 was the day that the NBA suspended its season and the day that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson revealed that they had both tested positive. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that the South Park Vaccination Special (styled as the South Parq Vaccination Special, which we won’t be indulging here) falls one day short of arriving a full year after that fateful day.
Of course, the South Park Pandemic Special already aired amid the throes of the pandemic on September 30. But with some 100 million Americans already vaccinated and the end of this awful thing approaching, the Vaccination Special allows South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to really take a step back and reflect on the very strange year that was. Their conclusion? That shit really sucked, man.
The South Park Vaccination Special is far superior to the Pandemic Special and is one of the better South Park episodes of the past few years. That’s due to the show’s reinvestment in its own central four characters: Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman. One got the distinct sense over the past five or so seasons that Parker and Stone (now in their early 50s and late 40s, respectively) had come to identify with Marsh family paterfamilias Randy more than their original South Park Elementary students.
Randy has always been a “great in small doses” secret weapon for South Park, but Parker and Stone have lately been determined to find as big a dose as possible of whatever special, pandemic or otherwise, Randy’s Tegridy Farms is selling. The Vaccination Special doesn’t feature Randy until the very end of its runtime, when he takes the opportunity to hock his wares and remind us that the episode is nearly over. Taking his place as the South Park leads are the four Kommunity Kids who were always designed to fill that role in the first place.
There aren’t many tangible ways to measure this, but it does feel that amid quarantine, nostalgia has reigned supreme. When the present is boring and the future is murky, the past is all we have. At least I think that’s the case because me and countless other older millennials with disposable income have driven the Pokémon cards of our past to near extinction.
Parker and Stone too seem to have spent the months since the Pandemic Special aired thinking about their past. The resulting Vaccination Special is the kind of self-indulgent spectacle that the show would make fun of under any other circumstances. But after all we’ve been through together, who could blame South Park for wanting to post some cringe of its own?
The plot of Vaccination Special is convoluted and bizarre as any other latter-year South Park episode. Parker, Stone, and their team of writers clearly view the writing process as exploratory, and follow the whims of the story to wherever it wants to go. In this case, the story takes South Park from Walgreens as the hottest club in town, to Cartman humiliating their teacher, to Mr. Garrison returning, to the whole town getting swept up in a war between the Kommunity Kids and the QAnon-tutored Q’Ties. Of course, Garrison faces down Hollywood’s shadowy elite, and Mr. White turns into a penis but that’s the long and the short of it.
While some (or most, if you’re feeling uncharitable) of South Park’s recent plots feel exhaustively convoluted, this one does not. Amid all the insanity, the show never loses focus of the four boys at its center. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny have all dealt with the ennui of being together for 25 years before, but something about their dissatisfaction this time feels more acute…and more adult.
The quartet spend the entire episode with one another and their strange dynamic takes center stage. Cartman is always the one to make something happen, in this case the plan to cheer everyone up with a cruel prank that horrifically backfires. Kyle is always the one to oppose Cartman’s plan. Then Stan is always the one who must field Kyle and Cartman’s complaints and requests to keep the other in check. Meanwhile, Kenny is the wide-eyed innocent stuck in the middle of it all.
This dynamic is exciting and fresh to see onscreen again after the show has spent so much time sidelining the core four. But you can also appreciate just how exhausting it is for the kids. The scene in which they accept their “divorce” and begin the process of divvying up time with Kenny is strangely affecting (either that, or we’ve all been inside far too long). Despite displaying a newfound interest in serialization, South Park’s breaking up of its main characters seems unlikely to stick in its 24th season. For now at least, it’s a tender examination of what one full year of sustained stress can do to our most important relationships.
While the dissolution of the Kommunity Kids’ union is novel ground for the show to tread, the rest of this special is positively bursting with callbacks and nostalgia. Of course, the most prominent bit of past reclamation comes in the form of Mr. Garrison.
“Oh yes, I’ve got a lot of baggage,” Garrison happily explains to the bus driver upon arriving back in South Park following his stint as the literal President of the United States.
Garrison breaks down his hero’s journey to PC Principal and to any audience member who may have forgotten. First he was a caustic elementary school teacher with a finger puppet fixation. Then he was gay. Then he was a woman. Then he was Donald Trump. Now he’s back and can’t we all just get back to normal? Hopefully as quick as possible?
It’s hard not to see Garrison’s journey to reclaim his past self as commentary. Even if it can’t fully articulate it, South Park wants to get back to something, whether that be its own golden era or merely a world without a virus rampaging through it. There is a truly astonishing amount of past characters who pop up in this Vaccination Special, even if for only a moment. Scenes frequently feature comic book style flash page art with dozens of characters from South Park’s past. I wasn’t able to pause it to get a full accounting but I do recall seeing Al Gore, Cthulhu, and Najix, the Talking Taco Who Poops Ice Cream. Hell, even mad scientist Alphonse Mephisto from season one gets a speaking role this time around.
Given the subject of this particular episode, and the catharsis of all our impending vaccinations, a lot of these callbacks and cameos really do feel earned, rather than just an ancient show playing the hits. It certainly helps that a lot of these callbacks are funny. One in particular that caught my eye is a notecard reading “Whale on moon?” on Mr. White’s Q conspiracy corkboard. Who could forget the fate of poor killer whale Willzyx? Seeing Parker and Stone in their Basketball attire as part of the Hollywood Elite on the corkboard is good for a chuckle too.
In fact, much of this episode is perfectly pleasantly funny, if infrequently laugh-out-loud. The presence of Garrison’s Mr. Slave replacement, Mr. Service, is hilarious. Naturally, the sight gag of White as an enormous, barely sentient dick is a winner as well. Much of the third-wall breaking is amusing, even if it culminates with shadowy Hollywood powers being connected to the Israelis.
Not everything works in Vaccination Special. South Park doesn’t know what to do with QAnon, but to be fair: who does? Some of the boys’ plans once they secure vaccines are unclear or don’t really follow.
But still, by the end of the episode’s extended running time, it’s actually quite cathartic to see the people of South Park riotously celebrating, unmasked. That’s certainly partially due to the context surrounding the episode (after all, Pandemic Special featured a similar ending that wasn’t nearly as pleasant), but it also speaks to the work that the episode puts in with its characters.
I mentioned earlier that this is one of the better South Parks of the past few years. It occurs to me now that I have no way of knowing that’s true, having forgotten many of the South Parks of the past few years. In any case, judging South Park against itself is a difficult proposition as each episode feels crushed under the weight of the show’s own massive catalogue.
For now, at least, the Vaccination Special works on its own as a nostalgia-drenched bright spot at the tail end of a very long year.