If the concept of posterity still exists on the unlivable, arid hellscape that will have replaced our fertile green Earth come 2050, perhaps posterity will remember 2018 as the year we all realized we’re doomed. Since attending a press screening in May, I’ve been haunted by the memory of Paul Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed, in which Ethan Hawke portrays a country priest who becomes an ecoterrorist after he learns that we’re all hurtling toward apocalypse. Not a day goes by without quotes from the script replaying themselves in my head like wailing warnings from Jacob Marley: “Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to His creation?” “Well, somebody’s got to do something!” When the New York Times ran its sound-the-alarm report on the irreversible effects of climate change last month, it gave shape to a generalized atmosphere of despair where the, er, atmosphere is concerned.
If you wanted a sign that our planet’s terminal diagnosis has finally begun to sink in, look no further than Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s admission that they were wrong. A staunch refusal to accept any culpability for regrettable social developments usually feels like a cornerstone of the South Park ethos. In the Trump years, the show has studiously avoided any concession that their constant sniggering about the spray-tanned nincompoop played even an indirect role in Trumpism and Trump’s ascent to the White House. The show behaves as if it needs the freedom to make fun of whatever it so pleases without any critical introspection whatsoever — Stone and Parker are probably the people most reluctant to look back since Orpheus walked Eurydice out of the underworld.
At long last, however, they’ve conceded. Parker and Stone wrote “Time to Get Cereal” with the clear purpose of rebutting their season-ten episode “ManBearPig,” a riff on Al Gore and his crusade to scare Americans straight using his documentary An Inconvenient Truth. In the comparatively naïve days of 2006, team South Park felt no compunction over yukking it up at Gore’s passionately held principles, his public profile, and, more than anything, his pleas for people to heed his words. They made a literal cartoon out of the former Vice President, gave him an effeminate, lisping voice, ceaselessly mocked his hand-fluttering concern over the mythical human-ursine-porcine hybrid, and only now have they conceded: Damn, the guy may have been on to something.
The decade-long delay on Parker and Stone’s mea culpa is frustrating, but better late than never, right? At least the showrunners have the good sense not to let themselves off the hook too easily, using their Gore avatar to repeatedly insist that it is actually not better late than never, that late is the same as never when the damage is of the irreparable sort.
The kids find the 2000 presidential candidate whiling away his time at a bowling alley, perfecting his split game and growing his Forrest Gump beard. (Their requests for “that weird old guy” and “a government guy named Al Gore” at the town state house prove fruitless.) The years have hardened him, and his attitude these days alternates between smug I-told-you-so-ism and aggravation that nobody paid his Cassandra prophecies any mind. Because the real Al Gore is probably a pretty gracious guy, Parker and Stone have to rub their own noses in it, using their characters to scream at the ignorance of their mid-aughts selves. Judging by the toolbox at the restaurant who recites conservative denialist talking points as ManBearPig tears his fellow diners limb from limb, the writers don’t feel so great about having once been ignorant in the exact same way.
Ever the chocolate-handed kid insisting that he couldn’t have been the one in the cookie jar, South Park can’t help but shift responsibility in its final shot, turning its scorn on the oldsters that sent us to global meltdown. But even if done in a half-measure, several days late and several dollars short, the show’s brief reckoning with its own failures marks a major milestone. Over on FX last night, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia made penance for one of its own past sins, legitimizing the homosexuality that had theretofore been assigned to Mac for humor’s sake. The show found that there’s no weakness in admitting fault; that quite the opposite is true, in fact. South Park would be a stronger, smarter, funnier show if it made a habit of holding itself to a standard of acknowledging that its humor exists in the real world, with real consequences.
The show’s oft-repeated policy of “equal-opportunity offense” sounds a lot more egalitarian than it is, because it supposes that all hot-button issues have two comparable sides equally deserving of an elbow to the ribs. When the phrase “global warming” started circulating and panic gripped those with an eye to the future, South Park saw as much worth in ridiculing the Republicans clinging to their Hummers as in ridiculing the lily-livered Democrats acting like the sky was falling. Turns out that there was a demonstrably right and wrong side of history this time around, and nobody could see that except for about half the people in the country, who were constantly pleading with legislators to stop condemning our species to an eventual heat-death. There’s a limit to this show’s giggling nihilism, after all.
Assorted thoughts & questions:
• Red Dead Redemption 2-fever has come to South Park, with everybody from the kids to the local police chief itching to get a few spare hours for play. While I have not personally tried my hand at this game, I have forced several friends to explain how it works to me at length. At this time, I wish only to express my complete bafflement that so many of you have committed to a game in which the main character must monitor his horse’s weight and shave his face. What happens on level seven, you file his taxes?! Thank you, tip your servers, try the chicken à la King.
• Big year for the Olive Garden on the small screen, between the kids’ trip to the popular Italian chain restaurant to placate Al Gore and the High Maintenance episode in which Kate Lyn Sheil and a painkiller-ed-up Ben Sinclair babble the slogan, “When You’re Here, You’re Family!” at one another during a hospital visit.