Up at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, I saw a motion picture that begins with a realistically rendered school shooting. The rest of the film interrogates the lasting emotional and sociological ramifications of this tragedy in particular and the phenomenon in general, placing the epidemic of gun violence within a broader framework of hysteria in America. Nonetheless, a good deal of the audience wasn’t having it, judging from the healthy number of walkouts and the shall-we-say-mixed reception on Twitter afterward. One critic told me that the movie had lost him from the first scene and never got him back onboard, and he wasn’t the only one taking the graphic handling of such sensitive subject material as an instant deal-breaker.
These people would lose their damn minds if they had to watch South Park every week. They don’t have to, and most likely won’t; the show’s great advantage is that after two decades on the air, they’ve winnowed their viewership down to a core fandom impervious to offenses of taste and large enough to sustain the production into perpetuity. The 22nd season premiere, “Dead Kids,” opens with an active gunman on the loose at a grade-school facility, and if the clinical detachment of the previously mentioned film alienated average moviegoers, the sniggering glibness of these scenes could very well inspire mass fainting spells. Of course, Trey Parker and Matt Stone would love nothing more. Their goal has always been to get a rise out of their audience first and launch a cogent satirical critique second. This episode passes the former hurdle with flying colors, but never clears the latter.
The gag here is that, after sitting through the exact same news cycle ad nauseam, nobody’s all that fazed by the prospect of a serial murderer prowling through a local school. In Stan and Cartman’s class, they continue to learn how to add fractions with different denominators as if nothing has happened, the teacher speaking only slightly louder to be heard over the sound of gunfire. During a meeting with PC Principal (who speaks with his hands tucked into his armpits, a subtly clever gym-teacher touch), Mr. Mackey steps out to take care of a shooting situation the same way someone at a party shoulders the chore of answering the door when the pizza guy arrives. Stan’s mom Sharon is the only one appropriately processing the day’s happenings, screaming her head off while her husband and son behave in a rather cavalier manner. (“What’s this about a shooting at the school? Was it you? Did you get shot?” is Randy Marsh’s half-interested inquiry.)
South Park’s point that the constant routine of shock and grieving has inured the American people to the simple act of feeling is not incorrect, just expressed in garbled terms. Instead of digging deeper on the psychosis of numbness, the A-plot turns into an unending elbow-rib about chicks and the periods that make them crazy. An unruly response to such extreme experiences is perfectly reasonable in these extraordinary circumstances, but Randy is convinced that Sharon is overreacting due to her time of the month and conveys as much via labored charades behind her back. He smooths everything over with a heartfelt rendition of Andy Williams’s gold-throated theme “(Where Do I Begin?) Love Story,” and yet still things end with her apologizing to him for being unable to recognize when she’s acting irrationally.
Because Sharon’s in the right while Randy’s a complete idiot, the joke’s supposed to be on him, but that reading doesn’t completely hold water. That’s surely the explanation Parker and Stone would give for their approach, doubly applied here as Cartman goes on an investigation to figure out whether Token abstained from seeing Black Panther in the B-plot. Cartman’s blithe racism and Randy’s mid-century attitudes about the female body are posited as self-evidently laughable, baldly wrong as they are to any right-thinking human being. But that impression originates in the presumed conscience of the viewer and not from the show, which is glad to chortle along at the suggestions that bleeding makes ladies cuckoo and black people are lying about loving the actually-not-that-great Black Panther. If we’re willing to be decent people, that frees Parker and Stone up to misbehave to their hearts’ contents.
Covering South Park at the same time as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia feels a bit like being on a sophomoric current-events beat, as both shows process the major topics of the moment with a self-aware boorishness. They duel every Wednesday night, and this week’s matchup made the contrast between the two programs and their distinct methods of satire starker than ever. While the Paddy’s gang touched on the #MeToo movement with humility, implicating themselves as part of the problem to communicate the sum total of issues currently facing women, South Park has a chronic tendency to let itself off the hook.
The crux of the South Park ethic is the viewer’s willingness to point and say “look at this A-hole over here,” but that places the onus of creating meaning on us. The flip side of this tack is that it leaves room for morally deficient viewers to have their worst instincts validated and parroted back, and those without the inclination to question what’s onscreen simply won’t do so. Parker and Stone bank on their viewer recognizing the horribleness played for laughs as such, but leave no signposts to suggest their true intentions. Forget the finger-flutterers thrown off balance by art-house severity; imagine how a hypothetical outsider with no knowledge of or regard for the ongoing school shooting cycle would see this. To anyone who doesn’t already see the horror of these images going into the episode, making it redundant as commentary, it all looks like a big joke.
• Before the deleted-scene footage shows up, the end credits roll over a large watermark reading “#cancelsouthpark,” a reference to their cheeky new advertising campaign in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone plead with fans to free them from their contract by demanding the show’s removal from Comedy Central’s schedule. Call it a sign of the times: One of TV’s most dependable controversy magnets now has to gin up its own opposition.
• Though he cuts an imposing figure, toddling down the corridors of his school with an AK-47 clutched in hand, Butters may not be the most effective hall monitor the South Park school system could’ve chosen.
• Cartman’s side adventure this week is pretty tiresome, but it’s all worth it for the bit where he briefly turns into Columbo while grilling Token and his family, muttering, “One last thing!” like the gumshoe of note. He’s like a tiny, bile-spewing, cartoon Peter Falk.