Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 6 through 12, 2016, is "Oh, Jeez" the seventh episode of the 20th season of Comedy Central’s South Park.
From one point of view, "Oh, Jeez," South Park’s post-election outing, is mildly remarkable. The episode was initially announced as "The Very First Gentleman" and was presumed to pivot off of a Hillary Clinton election victory.
Since the entire season has been building to some sort of showdown between men and women, the country’s first woman president’s election seemed a fitting touchstone for the show to comment on.
When that, uh, didn’t happen, Trey Parker and Matt Stone were forced to scramble. In the handful of hours between when Donald Trump officially won the presidency and "Oh, Jeez" aired, they almost completely rewrote it to reflect reality (granted, skewed through South Park vision).
That the episode is mostly coherent and has a couple of laughs is a tribute to the two’s innate understanding of both comedy and narrative. But otherwise, "Oh, Jeez" plays out pretty much like the TV show equivalent of a major paper written the night before it was due.
South Park season 20 has unleashed one of the show’s best satirical ideas in years
For years, South Park has been marked by Parker and Stone’s particular brand of libertarianism, which largely seems to believe that caring about things is stupid.
Every so often, the two would open up cracks in their facade to reveal that, yes, they did care about some things, and those made for some of the show’s most memorable episodes. But the prevailing political wisdom of the show has always been: "Both sides have some points. Whatever. Smug people are irritating, right?"
But as Parker and Stone get older, the show’s core philosophy has shifted, just a bit. Now, the show is still irritated by the smug, and it still nods toward the idea that caring about stuff is stupid. But there’s also a distinct anomie that’s settled over the show now, because there is something worth caring about — the future and what it might look like.
Since 2011’s "You’re Getting Old," which could have easily functioned as a series finale, South Park has grown slightly more ruminative. The 19th season (which I wrote about here) actively wrestled with the idea of what both South Park the town and South Park the show meant in an age of political correctness — and it didn’t always conclude that the series was in the right.
And season 20 has taken aim at both Donald Trump and Star Wars: The Force Awakens via an ingenious satirical device: Member Berries.
Member Berries, when ingested, cause the person who’s taken them to lose all critical faculties and long for an uncomplicated past. In and of itself, this would be an okay idea for the show to dig into — Parker and Stone are great at unpacking pop culture, after all — but the link between Star Wars and Trump (here portrayed by South Park’s increasingly irascible teacher Mr. Garrison) gives the idea even more heft.
When we long for the past, the show argues, we can’t see what’s in front of us, and we become lost in a haze. And it doesn’t matter if the past we long for is when we were kids watching a favorite movie, or a bygone America that was "great." We’re still trapped by nostalgia in the end.
The show is not averse to the pleasures of nostalgia, but it suggests, increasingly, that America is lost in barely understood memories of the past, that it will take regurgitation of old happiness — and I mean literal regurgitation, since in "Oh, Jeez," there are far more scenes of people vomiting Member Berries into each other’s mouths than you probably want to see — over experiencing anything new or novel.
Then again, maybe that’s a good idea.
Maybe the past looks so good because the future looks terrifying
Even as the characters are all swooning under the influence of Member Berries, the future of South Park looks grim.
The bulk of "Oh, Jeez" involves a program called Troll Trace, developed in Denmark, that has reduced the nearby city of Fort Collins to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, walled off from the rest of Colorado. What does Troll Trace do? It reveals the secrets of what you’ve looked up or done on the internet. Gerald Broflovski (Kyle’s dad) heads to Denmark to try to infiltrate the Troll Trace headquarters, at the behest of Hillary Clinton herself.
Truth be told, the Troll Trace stuff is increasingly losing my interest as it collapses into spy movie tropes and action hero cliches. (This is a mode South Park often tries to play in, and it rarely works.) But the central idea — hackers are coming to expose everything you don’t want anyone to know about yourself to the entire world — is a good one.
At the same time, the show has laced in the events of Campaign 2016. Over the course of Season 20, Garrison has tried, again and again, to throw the race in favor of Clinton, only to find his support rising with every new "gaffe." (One such gaffe includes Garrison outright telling everyone they should vote for Clinton, because she seems competent enough, and he doesn’t really want to be president. It doesn’t work.)
"Character who badly wants to fail but keeps succeeding in spite of themselves" is an ironclad comedic device, since it reverses the usual trajectory of success and failure, and it’s turned out to be among the funniest things about the season. In season 19, it was clear Parker and Stone didn’t think Trump had much of a prayer — they might have actually depicted him onscreen, instead of having Garrison "play" him — but they’ve turned that potential flaw into a virtue.
And yet as "Oh, Jeez" moves toward its conclusion — which features Cartman trying to move to Mars with his new girlfriend, so she won’t find out all of the awful things he’s said about women when Troll Trace goes live worldwide — the flop sweat from having to rewrite the entire episode on the fly definitely shows.
There are whole gags (like a set of Family Guy impressions) that aren’t bad but seem like they’re there just to kill time, and the roles of Hillary and Bill Clinton in the episode feel like they were ported over from whatever Parker and Stone wrote in anticipation of her election, then rejiggered just a little bit. (A song and dance number between Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby seems like it’s going to make a comment on whose careers can be ruined by rape allegations and whose can thrive in spite of them, but it mostly just sits there.)
Where season 19 of South Park started slowly and gained strength as it went along, season 20 started with a full head of steam (the Member Berries were the central conceit of the season premiere) and has gradually lost some of that momentum. But that’s probably to be expected, as tying much of the season’s story to the results of our very real presidential election made for some degree of wait and see.
But there’s something potent about the season all the same. South Park imagines a world where people retreat into the past because their darkest secrets could be exposed at any moment and a dolt who never wanted to be president somehow attains the highest office in the land.
I was going to call that a satirical dystopia, but even South Park seems a little freaked out by how close it hits the mark.
South Park airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on Comedy Central. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.