A person can never truly unsee the video of Roseanne Barr, cigarette pinched in her right hand, screaming that she “thought the bitch was white.” The actress’s explanation for her flagrantly racist tweets about former Obama administration adviser Valerie Jarrett only made things worse, proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that the woman America once thought of as its brassy blue-collar neighbor was in actuality a hardened ball of hatred. Never mind her choice of words, her basic manner — the full-body shake when she curses in between her first and second bellow that she “thought the bitch was white,” the crinkling and then full dinner-plate widening of the eyes, the violent gesticulation from her cigarette-free hand — is that of a frightening person. A kid wouldn’t feel comfortable being around Roseanne, forget the exponentially touchier watchers of sitcoms.
Of course they fired her. She had grown into what showbiz types call “a liability” and everyone else calls “a stark raving lunatic,” and keeping her on the revived Roseanne would’ve been more trouble than it was worth, so ABC executives cut her loose to spew all the slurs she likes on her own time. In most instances, the sequence of events wouldn’t be all that shocking. A person does something that reflects poorly on themselves and their employer, they get punished for it, and so long as that means dismissal and not imprisonment, it’s all good under the Constitution. But because we now live in a permanent state of Opposite Day, where bad is good and legal is a violation of our God-given rights, Roseanne’s ouster had to be a shot across the bow at free speech and freedom of expression.
Same goes for Brett Kavanaugh, except not at all. He also faced professional opposition during an important juncture of his career, only he has met with no consequences whatsoever, save for one widely televised talking-to during which he sniffled over his father’s beautiful calendars before accepting the United States’s apology for almost holding him accountable for his actions. This week’s South Park puts everyone’s favorite Christmas turd Mr. Hankey through the paces of a disgraced public figure, attempting to join Barr’s narrative with Kavanaugh’s. Like everyone else living in America, they’re preoccupied with the question of causality, of whether the things we do have ramifications, and whether they should. Trey Parker and Matt Stone keep it simple, digging into the heinous SCOTUS nomination hearings only in passing on the way to the insight that giving good-faith lenience to bad people leads to hurt. “If you defend poop,” we learn, “you get stained.”
Unbothered by the fact that it’s mid-October (“Restoration Hardware put their decorations up two weeks ago!”), Mr. Hankey has come to town to get the wheels a-turning on his annual Christmas pageant. He’s all gung-ho on the ol’ hidey-ho, but he returns to a sliced budget and a changed world that expects Christmas-specific entertainment to give everyone else something to enjoy, too. These and other factors — Hankey shares Roseanne’s instant-classic excuse of mixing her Ambien with social media, a Twinkies-defense-level deflection if ever there was one — drive Hankey to fire off shocking, offensive tweets during his off hours, eventually leading to his sacking from the program.
Only when Kyle takes it upon himself to protect Mr. Hankey’s reputation does the episode mature into a statement of its own beyond a poopy rehashing of recent events. There’s compelling drama and conflict in the case of someone like Sarah Silverman, who’s spoken about the ambivalence she felt upon learning that close personal friend Louis C.K. had been revealed to be a serial sexual harasser. Kyle wants to believe the best in his pal in the same way he wants to believe the best in people, and the lesson that he’s only making a sucker out of himself leaves a bitter aftertaste. Any cynicism implied there has been amply proven to be warranted by real life, and moreover, in keeping with South Park’s policy to snigger at one and all.
“The Problem With a Poo” might be one of the season’s more clear-headed episodes, if not for the final scene’s follow-through on the pun in the title. Once Hankey has been effectively “canceled” by the people of South Park, he leaves South Park as well, headed for a new horizon where nobody cares if anyone’s offensive. That ends up being Springfield, where Mr. Hankey spends a few IP-lawyer-baiting moments in the company of Homer Simpson and his cohorts, most prominent among them Apu. The program gave a wishy-washy nonanswer for the continued caricature-ization of its resident Squishee-slinger earlier this year, and now takes it on the shins on this episode’s way out. It’s all pretty rich, coming from a show that still has a black character named “Token,” but The Simpsons committed Parker and Stone’s cardinal sin: caring. Responding at all to the criticisms leveled against them, even to brush them off, scans a sign of weakness in the remorselessly un-PC universe of South Park. Cracking jokes means never having to say you’re sorry. Wait, is it possible these guys might sympathize with Roseanne?
Assorted Thoughts and Questions
• When Kyle tells his buddies that “I want to stand by my friend” after deciding to help Mr. Hankey’s cause, Cartman is the unlikely voice of reason: “Hm. Let’s see how that goes for you in 2018.”
• Stone and Parker open on an establishing shot of the local school, with gunfire sound effects and panicked shrieking in the background. It’s not fully clear whether we’re retreading the chronology of this season’s first episode, or if this is merely the latest school shooting in an ongoing series. Which is probably the point.
• Unless Parker and Stone have a larger game plan for the subplot of PC Principal and Vice Principal Strong Woman’s wedlock-born quintuplets, it feels like an albatross around the neck of an episode with better things to do. While the babies having exited the womb in kickass wraparound shades makes for a pretty funny dead giveaway for their parentage, the notion that decorous people sometimes do less-than-proper things is no great revelation.