South Park has gotten as far as it has on the strength of its unspoken pact between the Matt Stone–Trey Parker brain trust and the viewing public. Their chaotic one-week turnaround schedule makes them one of a small, elite cadre of pop-culture institutions capable of commenting on the world in real time, and their proud lack of decorum frees them up to say what SNL’s network censors would never allow. In this respect, South Park provides a valuable service by posing a series of hostile checks against the B.S. du jour, and earns itself a lot of slack. Fans swallow all the sophomoric humor and blithely offensive provocations, some more eagerly than others, as the cost of doing business with TV’s most timely running commentary. When directed at the right targets, a bloviating loudmouth can be a hero.
But when Stone and Parker fail to hold up their end of the bargain, as in this week’s episode “Moss Piglets,” their weaknesses show themselves more prominently. This latest half-hour doesn’t have much to say about anything transpiring in the real world, relying instead on a pair of purely comic story lines confined to their fictitious universe. “Moss Piglets” gains a link to our dimension approximately halfway through, the moment that a mysterious operative utters the letters N, F, and L, but even then, the commentary never hits harder than, “Gee, the NFL’s sure having a hard time keeping viewership up!” Instead, the episode whiles itself away on character work for its thinly sketched ensemble. This uncharacteristically insular interlude neuters its own satire, as if spliced in from a different and altogether more typical TV show.
The more substantive half of the episode follows through on the profoundly unhealthy relationship between Cartman and Heidi, which left off last week with the suggestion that she might be an ideal match for her hate-fueled boyfriend instead of his victim. “Moss Piglets” takes that idea and runs with it, remolding Heidi in her love’s twisted image. She has expanded to a more spherical shape, developed a couple patches of acne, and speaks in a familiarly strangled tone of voice. We can tell Cartman has rubbed off on her by the way she pronounces school as “skew,” but it’s because that’s part of a sentence comparing a Saturday at school to slavery that we can tell he’s penetrated her soul. So extreme is Heidi’s transformation into a Cartman double that even he’s kind of repulsed, and now we’ve arrived at the joke.
As Mr. Mackey muses, “She’s kind of like Cartman, only with the ability to follow through.” Her general effectiveness makes her even more dangerous than the genuine article, so all hell breaks loose when she’s reminded of a volunteer commitment to judge her school’s special-education science fair. (That she seemingly has no memory of offering to do so reinforces the mental totality of her metamorphosis into a full-blown piece of shit.) As cynical and calculating as Cartman with twice the self-discipline, she realizes that the easiest way to reclaim her weekend would be to frame her bailing as a principled stand. From there, we’re off to the races, as she perverts the basic concept of virtue to weasel out of doing something nice for special-needs kids.
South Park, it bears mentioning, does right by its deep roster of characters with mental disabilities. Though questionably animated, the main players of the alternate plot intertwined with Heidi’s fall from grace are shown to be clever and capable — even when villainous. Recurring antagonists Nathan and Mimsy (modeled after second-string Looney Tunes characters Rocky and Mugsy) figure prominently into the science fair Heidi refuses to judge, having carried on the proud tradition of the baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano. Their skill mostly lies in scheming, as we learn when they plot to sabotage Jimmy and Timmy’s decidedly more impressive project. The rhyming pair has successfully bred microscopic organisms known as tardigrades or “water bears” to respond to audio stimuli, and because Taylor Swift’s album drop is this week’s buzziest happening, that audio stimuli happens to be “Look What You Made Me Do.” Jealousy sets in, and Nathan attempts to unceremoniously end the tardigrades’ lives via the ol’ hair-curler-in-the-fishbowl trick.
The episode makes its first flirtations with larger relevance when that plan backfires, and elevates the water bears’ intelligence to hokey-pokey levels. Dark-suited men materialize and move to commandeer Jimmy and Timmy’s potentially groundbreaking project, but they don’t hail from any shady governmental agency. They’re with the NFL, and their plan is simple: If the tardigrades achieve complete self-awareness, then they can be made into football fans at a time when America has increasingly chosen to tune out. (The recent spike of controversy over pre-game protests has hurt the league’s ratings, suggesting that both viewers outraged over the refusals to stand during the National Anthem and viewers outraged over the NFL’s treatment of these protests have started to migrate.)
This comic concept doesn’t quite cohere until we get the visual of three humans in a football stadium full of silent fishbowls, and even then, the joke is disappointingly tame. This gag hasn’t been beaten to death quite like “They should make the airplane out of the food, it’s so bad!” and yet it’s about as trenchant an observation. Listen closely, and you can hear a sweaty stand-up comedian mumbling to a crowd, “The NFL needs crowds so bad, why not get bacterias to watch! That would count, right?” The joke doesn’t make sense, but that’s never been a problem for South Park before — it’s just not all that funny.
“Is it just me, or are things around here getting worse and worse?” When uttered on this week’s episode, these words aren’t intended as a sweeping meditation on anything beyond the South Park kids’ classroom. But they stick with a viewer all the same, and once they shed their context, they endure as a bleak portent of things to come. South Park should have been firing on all cylinders in 2017, a haywire year wherein every week has brought a new treason or scandal. Just this past week, many members of the Republican Party went on record that they’d rather support a pedophile than a Democrat. These are boom times for satirists, but South Park has chosen to kick back and giggle about how lame the NFL has gotten. Until they accept their role as public agitators — a role they’ve courted since their earliest you-mad-bro teases — “worse and worse” will be the order of the day.
• Water bears: neither water, nor bear. Discuss!
• Some have referred to Rocky and Mugsy as a cheap knockoff of Hanna-Barbera’s somewhat similar Dick Dastardly and Muttley, from Wacky Races. These people are charlatans. Do not heed their words.