When I was in middle school, the administration allotted students a handful of half-days on which we’d be released from class after three hours of hard work. That all changed, however, when one classmate’s mother lodged a complaint with the principal that picking up a child at 11 a.m. on a weekday was tough for working parents. Taking her comment into consideration, the school launched a new program in which students would be released one hour early once a month, instead of getting the true half-day every couple of months.
When the causes and culprit behind the change became public knowledge, the poor daughter of the woman spearheading this change became an instant object of scorn. Even then, as a tween, I was shocked by the level of vitriol reserved for her; she eventually overcame the incident, but some pariah vibes stuck to her for years. Turns out, kids really love getting school off, and conversely, they absolutely lose it when the privilege is taken away.
South Park’s latest episode tells a hotter-button riff on this same bizarre phenomenon, beginning with the local students in a full chaotic riot over the news that their Columbus Day break has been revoked due to the handiwork of one Randy Marsh. It seems that his heart is in the right place at first, if his methods may be a touch overzealous. Randy has leaned full-bore into the historical reappraisal of Christopher Columbus as a genocidal monster, rather than bold conqueror of the new world, in a cracked-mirror version of the recent spate of Confederate-monument removals. With the help of new ally Peter Galtman — a name peculiarly coded both as Jewish and as an Ayn Rand allusion — Randy gets almost too into it, to the point that you start to wonder why this specific issue fires him up so much. (His crusade involves taking an explosive No. 2 on New York City’s Columbus Circle monument and calling the citizens of Columbus, Ohio, to inform them that they’re racist pieces of shit.)
Both because he’s worried about his father and because he can feel himself attracting the heat of his classmates’ hatred, Stan tries to tell Randy he’s overdoing it, and yields the single most fascinating line in recent South Park history. “You have to overdo it in today’s society, Stan,” Randy manically replies. “You can’t be nuanced and subtle anymore, otherwise critics go, ‘Wow, what was the point of that?’” A viewer can’t help but wonder just how far the tongue’s supposed to be inserted into the cheek about this, seeing as that’s just about the purest, most self-aware distillation of the South Park philosophy they’ve ever allowed. It’s a pretty bleak sentiment, the notion that people are now too stupid for satire that does anything less than bludgeon them over the head with its meaning. And moreover, it’s disingenuous, because this episode turns right around and garbles its own message with a revelation that turns the political into the personal.
A quick online search reveals that Randy only got so frothy-mouthed over dismantling Columbus’s legacy as a cover-up for his complicity in the toxic culture. He’s had a lifelong obsession with the noted explorer that he indulged as recently as 2013, so dedicated to his fandom that he wore a Columbus getup to his own wedding. (His wife had some misgivings, more about the notion of getting married to someone in costume than the ugly colonialist implications therein.) When he realizes he’s in danger of getting found out, his one-man war against Columbus is reduced to particularly aggressive optics management. A faux commercial clarifies the writerly intentions behind all of this, advertising a genealogy-research service that helps white people assuage their own guilt by proving that they’ve got enough non-hegemony blood to play the victim. “I’m 21 percent victim!” one pictured dingus exclaims.
The good news is that this plot turn cues Randy Marsh up to aggressively make out with an acne-scarred Native American fellow who summarily falls for Randy and serenades him with the sparsest arrangement of the Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” you’ve ever heard. The bad news is that this reframes the conversation to be about the dishonesty that Parker and Stone presume lies behind the wave of statue removals. Instead of relitigating the ethics of removing Columbus statues (a matter already fully attended to by the one bad episode of The Sopranos), they’d rather inspect the liberal mind-set that they believe has motivated the recent push for removal. The back half of the episode keeps layering bad-faith assumptions on top of one another like a delicious lasagna of bullshit, chief among them being that those crowing the loudest about their morals are only trying to prove something. Randy Marsh, willing to do anything to keep himself in a position low enough that he can still punch up, wants to be offended just because it makes him look good.
This is a constant refrain of alt-right types, that those in pursuit of social justice secretly love that the world’s full of bigotry and hate because it grants them the moral high ground. These assumptions paint a depressing portrait of a world that doesn’t allow for genuine decency, only point-earning. There’s no denying that insidious dudes have used what the kids have termed “wokeness” as a smoke screen for their own ethical defects — entertainment blogger Harry Knowles, for one, recently took a stand against sexual harassment in the moviegoing community prior to getting outed as a longtime sexual harasser himself.
“Holiday Special” promotes a mind-set that leaves no room for true hearts, saying much more about the people who created it than anything else. After all of this, the tone-deaf concluding monologue that Randy delivers as a call for levelheadedness plays like a centrist’s craven request for everyone to just chill out. Applied to schoolyard bickering, it’s an effective de-escalation. But with a topic like statue removals, whether of Columbus or Confederates — a black-and-white issue that doesn’t straddle the difficult middle ground of moral ambiguity on which South Park has situated its empire — it just isn’t a good look.
• A fun joke that people never, ever get tired of: pretending that the Columbus Day holiday commemorates the accomplishments of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York director Chris Columbus. Likely to incite fewer racially charged arguments, too!
• “If you want me to look at the internet, I’ll die first” is a phrase worthy of tattooing in a visible location on the body, or at least needlepointing on a prominently placed throw pillow.
• If you thought that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were going to go this whole season without dropping the N-word, then you got another thing coming.
• “In fourteen-hundred-and-nine-two, Columbus got us a day off from schoo’.” God bless us, everyone.