On The Sopranos, the final fate of geriatric wiseguy Corrado “Junior” Soprano sent him to an elder-care facility for the mentally infirm following a dementia-related incident. Transferred there from house arrest, the show posited the old folks’ home as its own sort of prison, both in a literal sense (introduced as a ruthless killer, Junior ends the show stripped of all agency) and a psychological one (he was ultimately left to drift through the purgatory of his own deteriorating mind). The HBO show identified a more acute institutional sickness in the culture of these “retirement communities” than the simple fact that they’re very sad and often smell unpleasant. It’s more exacting than that; those lured with the promise of leisure must sacrifice every remaining semblance of self-determination in their lives.
Likewise, “Hummels & Heroin” compares the delicate dynamic of power among the essentially powerless residents to a jailhouse turf war, and raises the drama a few semitones until it breaks into the register of absurdity. A thriving black-market economy propped up by the unstable commodities of secondhand painkillers and creepy porcelain tchotchkes known as “Hummels” forms the basis of this episode, and yet South Park isn’t all that interested in seriously addressing America’s current opioid crisis or the insidious menace of elder abuse. (To the extent that South Park has ever been serious about anything, that is.) After a string of episodes addressing the Trump administration, this half-hour shoots for a style of comedy hermetically sealed by its pop-culture referents, goofing on genre rather than current events. Having valiantly defended the mantle of American political satire — we all remember the fidget spinner parody, yes? — it’s nice to see a South Park concerned chiefly with being funny.
Because it is. This episode plays like a procedural that Trey Parker and Matt Stone dreamed up after watching Orange Is the New Black while slugging codeine, an inspiredly idiotic marriage of the gritty narco drama and The Golden Girls. Like any good episode of Law & Order, it starts with the good stuff: Chuck E. Cheese (that’s Charles Entertainment Cheese, for those of you still on formal terms with the giant animatronic rodent) shows up to Marcus’s birthday party thoroughly wasted on pills, only to OD and die like Jimi Hendrix in front of a gaggle of scandalized children and parents. He’s the latest casualty of a thriving drug trade centralized around the Shady Acres Retirement Community, introduced with a humorous smash cut after the paramedic muses, “Whenever there’s a drug epidemic, you can usually trace it back to people who have been thrown away by society and forgotten about.”
The critique doesn’t get much more pointed than that, but a viewer doesn’t much mind when they’re preoccupied with their own chuckling. Over this half-hour, the contrast between the soft-spoken niceties of oldsters and the grittier nature of drug-runners proves a sturdy source of comedy. There’s the incredulous snort when Stan’s grandpa rasps to his grandkid that “Ms. McGillicutty is top bitch!” before explaining that she runs the game by virtue of owning the most extensive collection of Hummel figurines. (A vice to which we’ve already watched Linda Belcher fall victim.) A longer, deeper laugh hits when the audience realizes that Stan is handing off heroin to an oversized Swiper from Dora the Explorer before the young boy does. And then the deepest laugh of all, finished with a bitter note, when Stan’s father reassures him about his pop-pop, “He’s old, he’s supposed to be miserable.”
Just as the comic premise of octogenarians behaving like kingpins begins to wear thin, Parker and Stone shift gears into something that’s not quite a heist story, but occupies the same general neighborhood. Seemingly the only kid in town with an ounce of compassion left in his heart, Stan formulates a plot to boost all of McGillicutty’s figurines and give them to his granddad, making him the new top dog around Shady Acres. His foolproof plan involves disguising his buddies as a barbershop quartet and using them as a distraction, a bit that would’ve been worth it just for this exchange: “Are you with the Protestant youth group?” “Yes, yep, we’re young prostitutes looking to help out any way we can.” How generous, then, that the quartet goes on to warble out surprisingly harmonious covers of Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain,” Kelis’s “Milkshake,” and Nirvana’s widely beloved capitalism satire “Rape Me.” Cartman’s little waxed barbershop mustache helps.
All’s well that ends well, as Stan manages to install his granddad as Shady Acres’ new kingpin and the episode ends before wearing out its welcome. But a conclusion that feels a bit abrupt and predetermined still lands a square critical blow, succinctly getting at the Sisyphean element of America’s continuing struggle to eradicate drugs. Take down one cartel and another will rush in to fill the vacuum. But again, this is an episode content to take a step back and let someone else fight the great culture war for a week, while it’s busy making armpit farting noises. Because, after all, South Park isn’t the news, and its first obligation isn’t keeping the populace well-informed on the day’s big issues. If they want to string Peppa Pig out on Oxycodone for a dark, uncomfortable laugh, then I say all power to them.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions
• Of course, no episode about pushing drugs would be complete without a needle-drop of a fitting trap anthem; a snippet of “Brick in Yo Face” by Miami-bred hustler Stitches ties one early scene together, but better still is the original song written by unofficial Atlanta ambassador Killer Mike for the episode. Where’s the MP3 download, Comedy Central?
• From the moment Stan’s grandpa warns, “You know old-lady farts, where they’re so loose they don’t even acknowledge they happen,” the audience knows the episode is going to work blue. But McGillicutty’s never-ending stream of flatulence gets overplayed, a running joke run into the ground. They’re just such weak, airy farts.
• This is not the first time Hummel figurines have popped up in the South Park universe. Satan is shown to hoard the kitschy little collectibles in the season-four episode “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?” along with his boyfriend, obsessively cataloguing and reordering them.
• Hot take: Are Hummels just Beanie Babies for old people?