This week on South Park the boys discover that Thanksgiving is actually the result of an intergalactic truce between the alien nations Plymouth and INDI over mines that contain the universe’s supply of stuffing. Natalie Portman controls the wormhole to the different planets, Kyle gets assigned a PhD from DeVry Institute and becomes a History Channel expert, and real life Pilgrim Myles Standish is re-imagined to be a Thor-like warrior on a mission to protect earth’s access to stuffing.
We’ve seen a lot of South Park conspiracy episodes, and though “A History Channel Thanksgiving” doesn’t stray too much from the formula, it still feels fresh and enjoyable thanks to a few key elements — the escalation of the conspiracy, the random pop culture references, and Kyle’s reasonableness. The throwback special effects, elaborate Pilgrim-speak, and intricate landscapes of the planets Plymouth and INDI didn’t hurt either.
One of the strengths of South Park is that they really do commit to a plot. They start with a simple concept rooted in reality (kids probably do watch The History Channel to get information for school reports), add another real concern to the mix (The History Chanel does seem to have a lot of “BUT WHAT IF ALIENS WERE INVOLVED” specials and what if kids actually used this information as truth) and then they just go crazy, adding layers of ridiculousness till they reach the 22-minute mark. The History Channel is actually a group of CIA-like men in suits with access to helicopters and situation rooms! They use Kyle and Stan’s 4th grade history report as expert testimony and assign for-profit university degrees at will (suddenly Kyle and Stan are PhD certified from the University of Phoenix and DeVry and giving interviews for an Aliens at Thanksgiving special). The Indians and the Pilgrims WERE actually aliens and it was related to stuffing! And they’re at WAR! Over the stuffing mines! It keeps building till the Pilgrims decide to use “The Indian Destroyer” that blasts all the Indians with a flamethrower to win the battle, ensuring that the world will have enough stuffing in time for Thanksgiving.
Because layer upon layer of escalation would probably become tiresome, the pop culture randomness gives relief from the hyper-nerdy comedy of the main plot. So Natalie Portman shows up and her presence confuses everyone (seriously, why WAS she in Thor?). Eventually we find out that she controls the portal through “her wormhole.” Kyle has to wine and dine her to convince her to “open her portal.” She talks about Jerusalem, Harvard, dual citizenship, and she’s really, really boring. Kyle’s aggravation with the whole thing makes the scene amazing. He is fundamentally uninterested in Natalie Portman. It’s a pretty good joke, which leads into my final point: the real reason that South Park can get away with so much absurdity is because they always make sure to give us a level-headed outlet.
Whether it’s Kyle or Stan, someone is always in the background wondering whether or not X could really be happening. It seems like something that could become very stale very quickly, but South Park uses the “come on, seriously?” moment judiciously enough that it pretty much always adds to the episode. In the case of “A History Channel Thanksgiving” Kyle is the voice of reason amidst the insanity. He has a simple goal, he just wants to complete his report for History class. As we move further away from that small task, we watch Kyle get increasingly bored and annoyed with every new development, from the History Channel using his sarcastic interview as genius truth, to his dinner with Natalie Portman. Though the episode on a whole might not be as funny as some of the ones we’ve seen in the past few weeks, it works well and follows a formula that we’ve come to expect. As we near the end of the South Park era, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be disappointed with a streak of consistent, good episodes.
Lindsey has written for The Atlantic and contributes to The Junior Varsity. She lives in Chicago.