The first time that I encountered a Juul in the wild has been seared into my memory forever. In March of 2017, I had been sent to interview a pair of teens featured in a documentary about the trials and tribulations faced by adolescent girls in New York City. They walked in a few minutes late, apologized, and asked whether I would mind if they charged what looked to be a pair of long, thin USB drives they then plugged into the wall. When I made the grievous error of commenting that my phone also runs out of battery all the time and that I’m always juicing up my external charger too, they giggled in the soul-destroying way that only high-schoolers can and explained, “It’s a Juul. [Century-long pause.] For vaping.” The word “grandpa” was implied.
Following in the footsteps of Pokémon cards, Snapchatting, and Tide Pods, vaping is the newest youth craze that adults can comprehend just enough to fear. Last week, Yahoo! Finance reported that the vaporizer manufacturer Juul had earned a $15 billion valuation a brief seven months after its first round of VC investments, making them the fastest-growing start-up in the history of American commerce. For comparison: It took Twitter four-and-a-half years to pass the all-important “decacorn” benchmark of $10 billion. Facebook required two and a half. Juul barely needed a half year. Some have registered a lack of surprise, though. That’ll happen, they suggest, when you’re peddling a chemically addictive substance and your only competition is websites.
As a program with a robust, well-documented relationship to marijuana consumption, South Park has a vested interest in the matter of the Juul menace. This week, “Tegridy Farms” launches a two-pronged broadside against vaping that attempts to simultaneously occupy the moral high ground and low ground. As South Park Elementary gets swept up in vape fever, Trey Parker and Matt Stone make the not-quite-incompatible arguments that for one, Juul cons impressionable youngsters into getting friendly with nicotine while putting decent farmers out of business, and moreover, that vaping is for dorks, as opposed to smoking weed, which is cool. While they’re not technically wrong — James Dean and Bob Dylan smoked, club promoters and Instagram influencers vape — it’s tough to make a point about infrastructure and social responsibility when all you really want is to burn one down.
At first, it’s clear that regardless of the politics of nicotine use, we’ve got to do something to save the children. Stan’s sister Shelly has gotten a talking-to for showing pictures of her anus (don’t worry, it was only a photo of a dog’s anus!) to the hall monitor in exchange for vape cartridges, and if something isn’t done soon, little Ike could be next. Randy Marsh goes for the characteristic overreaction and ships his family off a cozy farm upstate, and because “upstate” refers to “upstate Colorado,” that farm raises rolling amber waves of cannabis. They live off the dank, mellow fat of the land, filling their home with hemp-fashioned products made responsibly and with care. Parker and Stone’s idealized vision of the business emphasizes artisanship, craftsmanship, and the personal touch over the cold mass packaging detailed by the executive who comes to buy their outfit.
Compare that to the ongoing situation back at school, where Cartman has struck up a kiddie cartel to move cartridges among the overworked tots in need of a release. He cycles through all the tried-and-true propagandizing employed by the cigarette companies, introducing a happy Kool-Aid–styled mascot and reassuring buyers, “Did you know that vaping is way healthier than smoking cigarettes?” In both instances, the ethical misdeeds are clear, and yet the foundation for their stance has faults running through it. Stone and Parker would love us to believe that they’re having a “won’t somebody please think of the children” moment and that they recognize the deleterious effects of factory farming, but the finale that sees Randy Marsh beating the hell out of two dozen mist-breathing douches suggests otherwise. The want the same thing anyone wants: for their greenery to stay potent instead of getting engineered into American cheese by Big Agriculture, and for lame-os to stop making it uncool to get high.
Does a stand for what’s right still count when it comes from a place of self-interest? It might have, if the episode could just be honest with us and itself about its motivations, which makes for stronger, self-effacing comedy. (Take it from 30 Rock, a sitcom’s never better than when pointing out how its creator is full of it.) But South Park is a program on a perpetual crusade, always finding some new issue on which to take a partisan stance. Their reluctance to examine any implication their program might have in the issues they discuss remains their Achilles’ heel, a notion laid bare by their personal investment in the fate of marijuana. Randy can name his farm whatever he likes, but this isn’t really about integrity. It’s about getting stoned, and rather than be upfront about reconciling the two, Parker and Stone pretend it’s about the first. As principled stands go, it’s not the most convincing. Everyone knows you’re high.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
• The noxious genre termed “bro-country” is easy enough to make fun of, but Parker and Stone cut right to the quick with their “Chicken Fried”-aping lyrics: “Ice cold beer. Pick-up truck. Country music. Listing shit.”
• This half-hour brings the return of fan-favorite Towelie, who’s found gainful employ as a quality inspector for the many cannabis farms dotting Colorado’s arable tracts. In a fittingly South Park turn of events, however, it’s mostly a front for him to smoke for free.
• For all their proud pothead leanings, Parker and Stone can still find room for a devastating critique of 4/20 culture via the hemp-wool hat that plays the Spin Doctors’ hit single “Two Princes” whenever someone dons it. Between this and Big Mouth’s shots across the bow at Phish and their jam-band cohort, America has begun to slowly inch away from age-old stoner stereotypes and toward the more put-together image of Claire Danes having a casual vape on Master of None.