South Park Recap: Principals and Principles

Photo: Comedy Central
South Park

South Park

Super Hard PCness Season 21 Episode 9
Editor's Rating 3 stars

Totally normal person Geraldo Rivera spoke out in support of Matt Lauer yesterday after the longtime NBC anchor was outed as a serial sexual harasser. On Twitter, he extended some sympathy to the “great guy” that was accused of pulling his penis out in front of a female subordinate and berating her when she did not enthusiastically return this advance.

Rivera’s language reflects a wider focus on the ambiguity of actions that’s become something of a party line for the growing club of high-profile predators. In a “flirty business” such as news (keep an eye out for Flirty Business, the worst rom-com of 2018!), it’s perfectly natural for co-workers to romantically gravitate toward one another, Rivera says, and that’s sometimes difficult to distinguish from harassment. Of course, this is only half true. It makes sense that someone might favor a partner who intuitively understands their professional world and its demands, not to mention the fact that we tend to fall in love with the people nearby. But anyone with two brain cells and one wisp of conscience can tell the difference between an attack and respectful flirting. A good rule of thumb is that if you’ve trapped someone in a room with you through the use of a Dr. Evil–style secret button, you’re not flirting. As Tiffany Haddish made clear on her SNL appearance, these situations are more clear-cut than those implicated in them may like to believe.

This week’s South Park flutters its fingers over the distinction between workplace romance and harassment, a line the episode makes out as increasingly blurry, when in actuality, Trey Parker and Matt Stone may just need a new prescription for their ethical eyeglasses. Both PC Principal and Mr. Mackey develop feelings for new work acquaintances in “Super Hard PCness”: As a paragon of inoffensiveness, PC Principal immediately falls for the independent, self-possessed Vice-Principal Strong Woman, while Mr. Mackey goes gaga for HR counselor Ms. Conduct because she is a female equivalent of himself and has opinions about conflict resolution methodology. They’re faced with a clear-cut dilemma, unable to act on their desires for the same reason that they felt them in the first place.

In what comes as a refreshing change of pace, this week’s episode mostly gets it right. PC Principal and Mr. Mackey manage to go the entire half-hour without any unsolicited exposure and instead engage with the women as regular peers, counting on their natural chemistry to bring them together. And it very nearly does: The episode ends with the cliffhanger of attraction threatening to break out between PC Principal and the apple of his eye. The propriety of their behavior plays as instructive, an illustration that if you just let romance happen instead of forcing it, you might just get met in the middle. It’s the first unambiguously decent statement in a season that has repeatedly compromised its own integrity of the interest of both-sides-ism.

Parker and Stone only risk shooting themselves in the foot with the intrusive B-plot, in which Kyle finds he’s unable to enjoy Terrance and Phillip’s new Netflix series (part of their initiative to release 1,087 shows in 2018, a number I had to check to make sure wasn’t real) like he used to. Kyle doesn’t find all the farting quite so funny, and he really doesn’t like the fact that voicing this opinion gets him branded a “Jewish mother.” His crusade to clean up a now-geriatric Terrance and Phillip leaves him looking like an overzealous censor, which of course endears him to President Garrison-Trump. It’s hard to tell whether this half of the episode — and it does take up about half; an oversize B-plot that messes with the rhythm — is more narratively or morally convoluted. Kyle doesn’t really know what he wants or how to get it, telling the Trump stand-in that he’s not in support of censorship before making a plea for a kinder, loving world.

Though the subplot really just gets in the way, this is a moment of truth. Like so many who have pushed back against the work of Woody Allen or Louis C.K. in recent months, Kyle is torn between his sense of decency and his knowledge that dictatorial control enforcing those standards of decency is dangerous as well. One gets the impression that what he really wants is to not be made to choose. He wants a world where sick men don’t force the public into decisions like this, where decency exists without having to be mandated. It’s an impotent frustration, but hearing it aired aloud feels good.

Until, of course, Kyle pivots and reveals that his whole crusade was a front to get Heidi back from the clutches of Cartman. The ending is a mess on every front, ending with a “to be continued” that accounts for the total lack of resolution. Exposing the emotional rationale girding his actions undermines them, and makes Kyle look like a desperate jilted ex instead of an activist. This move muddles what was otherwise a strong point, though it falls right in line with Stone and Parker’s chronic inability to believe in anything. The same old frustrations from past weeks are back again.

A nod to the old “Blame Canada” ditty from the South Park movie and the prompt nuclear bombing of Toronto bring the episode to a close, an odd addendum to a story focused elsewhere. Next week marks the season finale and the creative team’s last chance to do the right thing. The final scene doesn’t inspire too much confidence, however. In it, Kyle makes an impassioned bid for a world where “you aren’t ridiculed for trying to help.” The phone conversation ends with our Trump facsimile getting an erection at the thought of flattening our neighbors to the north. It doesn’t totally undo the more substantive A-plot about sexual harassment, but the final image leaves that option on the table.

Assorted Thoughts

• Terrance and Phillip apparently bring in 80 percent of Canada’s gross national product, noted in one of the episode’s funnier jokes. Canada is less a “country” in the South Park universe than the production house behind the Terrance and Phillip empire.

• When PC Principal falls for Strong Woman, the song he hears is “Hold My Hand” by Hootie and the Blowfish, an undoubtedly more cost-effective musical cue than last week’s Taylor Swift needle-drop. Better still, it sets him up for the gag of misunderstanding HR as “Hootie Removal.”

• I am more than willing to believe that pitching to Netflix is as easy as this episode makes it look. I imagine that at Netflix HQ, there’s just a big vending machine full of green lights, and anyone’s free to take one.

• R.I.P., Toronto. We shall miss your delicious poutine, clean city streets, and ketchup-flavored potato chips.

• The appearance of the various non-speaking members of Millennials Against Canada — creative facial hair, piercings, questionably ironic glasses, double-cuffed pants — serves as a reminder that most of the people who determine how the public sees millennials live in Los Angeles or New York. We’re not all so stylish.

South Park Recap: Principals and Principles