South Park is, economically speaking, artisan television. It represents a pure, unfettered expression of the vision and sensibility (sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much) of two guys who got started working out of their garage. One gets the sense they’re not receiving too many standards-and-practices notes from Comedy Central during their hectic weeklong production schedule, though if they are, I’m very eager to see what was deemed “too much” for an episode that includes a cameo appearance from a C-word-dropping Santa Claus.
Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker probably see a bit of themselves in Randy Marsh and the quixotic mission of Tegridy Farms. There’s a lot of talk in this week’s season finale about the vanishing quality of integrity, of taking pride in one’s work and resisting the cold homogeneity of corporate product. This doesn’t always rub its viewership the right way — who wants to listen to a couple of guys crow about how ideologically uncompromised they think they are? — but the sentiment behind the upbeat final tune stands tall through the end credits. Amazon represents a clear and unambiguous threat to all small businesses who prioritize quality and care over volume and expediency. It is heartening to hear this said on TV, a business that seems to be more frequently envious of the totality of Jeff Bezos’s power. But that’s South Park, always speaking truth to power, and then making sure we’re well aware of its bravery.
The good news is that the self-congratulation doesn’t outweigh the meaningful work done here, aside from a couple of scenes in which Parker and Stone slip back into the bad faith that gives this show its ugliest, most nihilistic moments. Though things pick up in the middle of the action from last week, as the bike parade has been threatened by the ominous rise of Amazon in town, this episode starts in earnest with the simple idea that the online megaretailer is bad for regular folks. It kills the people working there, such as workplace accident victim turned Marxist lecturer Josh, who’ll instantly die if the box containing his organs is opened. (Guess what becomes of that guy!) It kills the local commerce, with Tegridy Farms only getting back on its feet once the fed-up laborers decide to go on strike. They even work up a little healthy supply-and-demand competition with the neighboring Anderson Farm, and for a second, capitalism seems to be working again.
But the true focus of “Bike Parade” concerns the challenges inherent in building and occupying a new world, rather than deposing the old. The strike is plenty rousing, until we see the kids’ parents struggling to make ends meet while going without work. Some, unable to look their kids in the face and tell them that they’re making themselves poorer to prove a point, scab off. There are less direct crises to face, too; how quickly Randy’s Tegridy Farms starts to adopt markedly Amazon-ish business practices when he realizes that it’ll give him the edge over his rivals. The episode glances past it, but this may be the episode’s hardest nugget of wisdom: Capitalism functions by elevating those most equipped to combat it until they’ve happily assumed the position of oppressor themselves. Again, refreshing to hear the words “commodity fetishism” on TV, even if they’re uttered with a veneer of irony.
This occupies most of the first half, until the episode partially loses its sense of direction and ends up climbing back on its worst soapbox. South Park’s constantly restated belief that nobody actually believes in anything is the most toxic element of a show capable of having a deleterious influence on its viewership, and here it gets baldly stated in the most graceless terms yet. When the kids want to get the bike parade shut down out of spite, Cartman reasons, “How do you get anything canceled? You bitch about it being insensitive!” Moments later, the kids reason, “When it comes to outrage, your average person doesn’t give a shit, unless it has something to do with them.” These are both disingenuous characterizations of the recent uptick in consciousness of our pop culture’s politics — god forbid we start imposing standards of basic humanity on what we watch — that reveal much more about Parker and Stone than the America they call home. While this season’s return of ManBearPig proved that South Park will not collapse or explode if the show admits its own wrongdoing, the creators cannot bear to concede that being able to say whatever you want, whenever you want, regardless of who it offends may not be an inalienable right.
So concludes another cyclical season of a show trapped in its own arrested development. That’s probably the secret to its longevity, the determined refusal to age past 13 years old, but it makes watching this show over a course of years kind of draining. Being contrarian and provocative for its own sake is a lot of fun when you’re a teenager, testing culture’s limits and figuring out what you can get away with. (Or, more importantly, what’s worth getting away with.) But the fundamental immaturity of South Park, while refreshing in dribs and drabs, doesn’t flatter the show when considered as a big picture. A new friend from Twitter recently made the hilarious suggestion to me that this series is not meant to tackle real-world issues, but I’m starting to think he’s only half a ding-dong. For a show obsessed with remaining topical, they’ve taken to jamming their head in the tonal sand. They’re not always commenting on real-world issues. They’re commenting on how those issues exist in Parker and Stone World, which is two-dimensional.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions
• I’d like to issue a formal apology for last week’s misidentification of the basis for Jeff Bezos’s character design as being Brainiac from the Superman comics. With varying degrees of politeness, several readers have informed me that he is in fact modeled after the warlike Talosian species of extraterrestrials from Star Trek. I regret the error, but I’ve always preferred my stars War to Trek.
• New horizons in Kenny death: This episode marks the first occasion of his being murdered by an Alexa. [Amazon informational video voice] We’re innovating the next paradigm of killing Kenny, every day.
• Butters’s new-and-improved, peacock-feathered bike is a handsome creature, though what really ties it all together is the majestic jewel-encrusted tiara that evidently came with it.
• It is almost definitely for the best that we don’t get a full view of Cartman’s proposed “The Changing Face of Immigrants in America” bike-float, dutiful Filipino representation or no. There’s no way that doesn’t go poorly.
• Some excellent sight gags this week, from the explosion of viscera horrifying a group of children to the reveal through editing that Stan Marsh has been delivering his impassioned climactic monologue in the wrong direction. As someone who’s placed an entire 1 a.m. Burger King order to a cashier turned around and clearly not listening, I felt spoken to.
• That’s another year on the books for TV’s most foul-mouthed grade-schoolers, and what a year it’s been. Comedy Central’s contract with Parker and Stone extends through 2019 and season 23, so they’ll be back next year, but the future beyond that looks cloudy. All of the insistent #cancelsouthpark jokes have contained at least a few grains of honesty; two guys this evidently jaded can’t keep doing this job forever. Neither can I, for that matter.