‘South Park’ returns with mixed take on pandemic in special episode

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

“South Park” began in 1997 with a simple premise: kids swearing and behaving grotesquely is pretty darn funny. In the once-burgeoning world of cable rapidly expanding from prude sitcoms of decades past, “South Park” was shockingly unfiltered and refreshing. The wit and chaos of Cartman and the gang perfectly reflected the youthful energy of its unabashedly immature creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. 

It should be commended that “South Park” has dared to change so much between “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” and last week’s 50-minute-long “The Pandemic Special,” especially when compared to the stagnation of similar long-running animated comedy shows. And after all, recent “South Park” episodes honestly reflect their showrunners as well as when the show was at its prime. 

But that’s also what’s hurting the show. 

Now both around the age of 50, Parker and Stone are white, middle-aged comics who have dealt with years of criticism that has clearly taken its toll. The writing for the show is a product of this, and often for the worse. Recent seasons have had their moments, but too often they’ve been a tired mess of cultural references, libertarian angst and a measured move away from the kids. If you haven’t watched in a while, you may be shocked to learn that Stan’s dad, Randy (a clear personification of where Parker and Stone are at in their lives), is the main character — as if we didn’t have enough content of middle-aged men making fools of themselves.

While “The Pandemic Special” is better than what has come in recent seasons — and is a welcome return for the show — it’s too often a muted memory of hilarity that was, rather than particularly insightful today. Out of the dual storylines, the best by far centers around the kid’s experiences with school, regrettably given the B-plot, however. 

In a fantastic opening, we find Cartman in bliss abusing Zoom and the 6-foot rule to hide from people at home, where he is free to gouge himself on cheesy pop cereal. But to his horror, he and the other kids are dragged back to school. “South Park” has never been known to limit the scope of its satire, something that has increasingly bogged the show down in recent years, but the ambition pays off here. Because the town’s police were defunded and the school teachers unwilling to return, trigger-happy cops are naturally brought in as teachers. It’s low-hanging fruit, but watching the cops shoot Token within a minute and act giddily fascist throughout the rest of the episode pays for the special on its own. 

Although the time we’re granted with them is brief, the reaction to this hell by students such as Butters, Stan and Cartman is simultaneously funny and, in their pain and fear, genuinely empathetic — something “South Park” can do well when it tries. In a rare acknowledgment of the seriousness of our situation, Parker and Stone even break the fourth wall, an uncommon “South Park” trope, and beg the audience to vote. 

Unfortunately, leading the gross-out A-plot — as with so many episodes this last season — is Randy, who as we soon learn started the disease by having sex with animals in China. On paper, the absurdism should be pretty funny, and at times in the episode, it is. But having to sit through another plot focused on the painfully obnoxious Randy is more chore than entertaining. And worst of all, this storyline is just a recycled version of the last few “South Park” specials: We’re forced to endure the boring weed dealings of Randy’s Tegridy Farms as he naively profits off of the setup (in this case, the pandemic), poisons the general population with his drugs and attempts to escape death.

Watching Randy have sex with a bat will always be funny, but as long as Stone and Parker insist on relegating the sharper kid storylines to the background, the show will struggle. Maybe 20 seasons in there’s no going back, but is it too much to ask to watch Cartman feed some kid his parents again?

Contact David Newman at [email protected].