South Park is on a roll. After last week’s great episode where we discovered that all Broadway shows are written by bros, they’ve returned with “1%” where they tackle the occupy protests, from the overreactions by both law enforcement and media to the segmentation of the 99%. The upshot is that when South Park engages in political critique — in this case Occupy Wall Street — they obscure the particulars and instead expose the terms of the debate itself as absurd. By muddling OWS with controversial topics like No Child Left Behind, the obesity epidemic, racial taboos, and the babying of Americans, we never really see any clear position on OWS besides a general “everyone needs to calm down.” But the politics don’t matter that much, because the funniest stuff is actually about Cartman’s toys.
The kids at school participate in the President’s Physical Fitness Test. On average the school gets the lowest rating in the country and are required to forfeit recess for an additional P.E. class as a result. It’s Cartman’s fault (he has the cholesterol levels of a 70-year-old man), but the administrators refuse to single anyone out, so all the kids have to pay. After a fateful gym class Cartman’s classmates come clean: they know the school failed because of his dismal health. Cartman deems himself the 1%. The rest are the 99%. They’re ganging up on him because they’re too scared to blame Obama, according to Cartman.
The story splits once the roles are defined. In one thread, Cartman seeking solace from the self-imposed exclusion with his toys. In the other, we see a frenzy created by the two 4th grade students who decide to occupy the grassy area in the middle of the strip mall parking lot outside of Red Robin.
The comedy in the two-person protest is predictable but effective. The news media and the police go crazy with precautions and hype. An officer shows a map illustrating the two-mile protest radius. He explains that this area, that area, and this over here are police, this area is for the media, this is for the sleeping cots, and this is where Bon Jovi is going to set up his stage to perform a concert for the police (“they’re good men, they deserve to be entertained”). After that long set up, the officer reveals that it’s still just the two protesters, occupying the same spot. It’s South Park political critique at its finest. They don’t want to take sides, they just want to show the whole mess as ridiculous.
Cartman’s story is more absurd and ultimately more rewarding. Isolated from his friends, he retreats to his toys — Muscle Man Mark, Polly Prissypants, Rumpertumskin, Peter Panda, and Clyde Frog. He cries to them about his insecurities (!), and they console him. Though he’s providing the voice for all the toys, the viewers only see a close up of the toy that is “talking”, which gives a weird but effective legitimacy and distinct personality to each. Then, one by one, his toys begin to disappear. Someone is destroying them. Crucifixion, boiling, explosives, and fire are all used in a series of scenes where each toy is offed. The mood is a cross between a Shining style horror and a Godfather like assault. In the end, it is Polly Prissypants who masterminded the whole plan in an attempt to keep Cartman cool (kew). (“They were your friends!” // “They were holding us back!”). So he shoots her in the head. Like 6 times. With an actual gun. Because murdering your toys like a sociopath is a sign of maturity.
Over the past few years, thanks to commentary by Andrew Sullivan and Mary Elizabeth Williams, South Park has been given a somewhat esteemed place in political commentary. And that’s a lot of pressure for a show that is as reliably prescient and insightful as it is irreverent. The OWS segment was great, but it’s nice to be reminded sometimes that they can engage in non-political comedy in a way that’s not just an afterthought. “1%” proved that both are even possible in the same episode.