Mark Zuckerberg is probably a human being, but still, there’s just cause for doubt. Something about the guy is slightly off, and his transparent efforts to sell himself to the public as an average Joe only expose his automaton tendencies more acutely. It’s weird how badly the Zuck wants us to believe that he’s normal. He eats dry unbuttered toast in the same way that an actor who has never played guitar will pretend to play guitar while cameras are rolling, an uncanny approximation of something that should come naturally. He reacted to the recent hurricane devastation by releasing a VR demo in which the kajillionaire’s cartoon avatar wandered around the flooded streets and high-fived a pal. (Zuckerberg later apologized for the tone-deaf video.) He’s a strange man and if The Social Network is to be trusted, he’s not to be trusted.
The latest episode of South Park imagines a local stop on Zuckerberg’s recent cross-country tour, and leans into the running joke of Zuckerberg play-acting basic human behavior for an unconvinced audience. Rather than a robot, South Park’s Zuckerberg conducts himself as if he’s starring in his own private episode of Dragon Ball Z, using a crackly, dubbed-sounding voice to prattle on about fighting “styles” and getting “blocked.” He doesn’t really hear the things people say to him, responding from a script only he seems to have, and weirding other characters out when not outright annoying them. It’s an apt joke if an easy one, but that’s only the beginning of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s satirical offensive against Facebook.
The Big Topic tackled in this week’s episode is the recent epidemic of “fake news,” Facebook’s role in disseminating it, and its utter failure to do anything even resembling combating it. Zuckerberg comes to town upon the request of a junior superhero team established by Cartman and his buddies, a league known as “Coon and Friends” because Cartman moonlights as a raccoon-themed crimefighter, but in a more to-the-point sense, because Parker and Stone find racial slurs funny. Self-fashioned supervillain Butters is spreading rather flamboyant misinformation about the pint-size defenders using his surprisingly well-run legion of chaos, and someone has to prove once and for all that nobody’s eating poop or having sex with antelopes. But as anyone who’s attempted to take on the digital Goliath already knows, getting Facebook to take something down can be prohibitively difficult. (Just last night, Twitter proved the continued importance of this issue by suspending Rose McGowan’s account, while various Nazis continue to tweet away with the blue check mark of verification.)
Parker and Stone take all the expected Facebook potshots, dutifully pointing out that spreading fake news is technically not illegal, and then parrying with the fact that what’s legal can still be, and often is, highly unethical. It’s a pretty broadly supported stance — nobody really supports fake news, though the more deluded deny its existence — that lacks the usual “did they really just say that?” quality that South Park fans crave. The sharpest jab of the half-hour comes in the suggestion that the money advertising clients pay Facebook, a whopping sum of $17.23, is all the incentive the company needs to turn a blind eye to deliberate fakery. Aside from that bit, however, no searing lightning bolts of truth this week.
In a refreshing change of pace, “Franchise Prequel” delivers more adroit media criticism than political, leveling solid disses against Netflix and the Marvel industrial complex. Coon and Friends assemble not out of a shared desire to promote peace and justice throughout the land, but for that sweet, sweet franchising cash, baby. In one of the episode’s better jokes, Cartman walks his pals through their ridiculously elaborate plan to build a shared universe of movies and TV shows that baffle everyone with their convoluted connections and sequencing. While Marvel’s often hard-to-follow “cinematic universe” has made the company vast sums of money, the web of interconnected movies is approaching a tipping point, and figuring out which characters go where and why has turned into a game all its own. All this talk of “phases” and soft reboots and prequels and spin-offs has gotten to be too much, and South Park wants you to know it shares in your feelings of being overwhelmed.
Better still are the cracks at Netflix’s expense, specifically about their apparent doctrine to greenlight every pitch that passes their desk. As Cartman so sagely tells his buddies, “Netflix is starving for new shows right now. They will literally buy anything people pitch them.” At the streaming giant’s HQ, underlings pick up the phone with a cheery greeting of “Netflix, you’re greenlit, who am I speaking with?” Netflix has dropped a staggering $6 billion on new content this year, another business model that doesn’t seem workable over a long timeline. South Park zeroes in on that, along with plenty of well-deserved owns to the supremely embarrassing Iron Fist.
But the Facebook critique and the bits taking the hot air out of Netflix and Marvel never dovetail into anything that forms a larger picture. The baldly stated message fails to extend pass “everything is screwed, please fix it,” a vague default that South Park often resorts to. And this, in a week plagued by the biggest media scandal in recent memory. (See below.) There’s simply too much happening right now for an episode that feels this unfocused and slight — these should be boom times for a show like South Park, but “Franchise Prequel” is one of the season’s scrawnier episodes.
• The only truly shocking moment of the episode was a fleeting name-drop for Harvey Weinstein, in an insubstantial throwaway joke about what a scumbag he is. You can’t help but wonder if that’s all we’ll hear from Stone and Parker on the matter, this week’s most major news item.
• Likewise, it’s nice to hear someone on television say that Suicide Squad “sucked.” Someone in this world needs to reaffirm basic sanity.