Though there’s never really a “good” time for such a thing, it’s an especially unfortunate week for South Park to run an episode as frivolous and insubstantial as “Sons a Witches” all the same. The Village Voice ran a lacerating feature titled “South Park Blinks” a few days ago, lamenting the show’s inability to fully satirize Trump and its failure to recognize its own place in his paradigm. Writer Lara Zarum rather astutely notes that Trump has been more of a background presence this season, an accessory to stories that aren’t necessarily about him. I’m inclined to agree, though the nature of week-to-week TV forces a critic to take each episode on its own independent terms; you end up thinking about what is happening in a given half-hour far more than what isn’t.
As if in a directly affirmative response, “Sons a Witches” returns not just to glance over a sensitive topic in the most vague and perfunctory way possible, but to suggest that Trump can be another supporting character in a densely populated cut-paper universe. The sense of alarm that felt like a reality check in “Put It Down” has cooled into a complacency that reflects a series-long doctrine of blithe withdrawal from the real issues. The one thing South Park won’t do is take a side, insulating itself from criticism by hiding behind the “equal-opportunity offender” line. As some cry that this is not normal, Trey Parker and Matt Stone can only shrug and respond that things have always been all messed up. Business as usual.
The “Sons a Witches” writers might like to believe this episode addresses the current wave of exposing sexual predators in the entertainment industry. It does not. The episode really digs only into the subject of witch hunts, in the most literal surface-level terms and to a limited thematic extent. Again, Stone and Parker scoot away scot-free by naming no names, more eager to poke fun at the notion of being hysterical or self-righteous than to consider how a culture of power-based predation could have taken root. South Park is a show of owns, and the truth of an episode always lies in who’s getting owned. In this case, an issue with a clearly demarcated bad guy and good guy, they mete out the wisecracks evenly. It’s never been safer for them to take a stand and pick a side. But everyone knows the first rule of trolling is you can’t mean it.
It’s all so much easier and simpler if the witches are real, protected by the semi-permeable layer of meta-commentary. The dads of South Park are all eager to blow off some steam over the week before Halloween, with a never-before-seen annual tradition called Jack and Crack Witch Week in which the dudes start a bonfire, cast some spells against their wives, and get ruined on whiskey and crack cocaine. What starts as harmless fun can all too easily take a wrong turn, and ends with one of the merry bros getting turned into a bona fide witch who wreaks havoc on the town, setting off a … witch pursuit of some kind. Based on how many times the script returns to this gag, Parker and Stone find the concept of a witch not having the term for “witch hunt” to be far funnier than it actually is.
This brings us to no great insight, no dementedly inspired fits of lunacy (is it weird that I really miss Satan’s presence on this show?), and nothing of real worth. All the episode does is reinforce television’s bizarre yet normalized belief that all heterosexual men hate their significant others, and on two separate fronts no less! While the assorted dads only need Crack and Jack as a respite from their shrewish, henpecking wives, the B-plot joins Cartman as he gets so fed up with his girlfriend’s snail’s pace at getting ready to go out that he decides she must die. Ha ha, yes, women do take a long time to get dressed and out the door! What’s next, bitches be shoppin’?
In typical South Park fashion, events escalate from the silly to the fully absurd, as the witches’ campaign to preempt a witch hunt encompasses a hokey school assembly with a desperate “We’re All on the Same Side” musical number. This is a joke that many others made when Woody Allen said he was hoping to avoid a “Salem atmosphere,” only without the waffling that drained it of all its force. Donald Trump then gets introduced as the lazy deus ex machina who fixes everything, probably because the writers realized they’d painted themselves into a narrative corner by introducing a villain too powerful for anyone in South Park to stop. Believe it or not, Trump is the good guy here, though he’s represented through the avatar of Mr. Garrison. Either way, in lucidly and rationally using his presidential powers to avert a dangerous situation, this portrayal rings false.
In its sophomoric and defiantly un-PC way, South Park has enforced the relatively new policy of both-sides-ism. Parker and Stone seem genuine in their convictions that there’s just as much criticism to be leveled against those fighting wrongdoing as the wrongdoers themselves. Sex abuse is bad, but in the cockeyed moral physics governing the South Park universe, there’s nothing worse than being pious or self-important. The suggestion that overzealousness in ferreting out sex predators could possibly be satirically comparable to assault itself is a repugnant notion, and wholly unnecessary. Side-taking is anathema to the South Park philosophy that Everything Sucks So Who Cares, but this week’s hot-button topic is too one-sided and morally clear-cut for their games. Rising above a conflict by recognizing validity on either side doesn’t work when one side is invalid.
• Doesn’t seem like the kind of allusion they’d deliberately incorporate, but I have faint memories of a shot from Degrassi identical to the first in this episode, when the man-witches cruise around in a convertible while listening to “I Want Candy.” I wonder if Parker and Stone have seen Degrassi?
• Chip Duncan’s rampage of witchy terror nicely recalls the Willem Dafoe played Green Goblin from the first Spider-Man movie, right on down to the flamboyant pumpkin bombs. With so many bungled Spider-movies between then and now, it feels like so long ago. A simpler, Dafoe-ier time.
• The dads also make sure to add a couple curses against the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders. Because the only thing that the repressed American dad likes more than ragging on his spouse is football.
• In what is ultimately a disappointing and frustrating episode, the line “God, I knew that guy was a fucking chode” is a gift and a salve.