Where satirical television is concerned, I find the most bracing episodes to be the ones that make a viewer wonder how nobody got sued. The best moment in last year’s standout Nathan For You episode “Andy vs. Uber” came when host Nathan Fielder’s crusade against the ride-sharing app crossed the line into legally actionable territory by assembling a “sleeper network” of double agents within their workforce. Fielder shares the common man’s contempt for the tech-money bigwigs putting the little guys out of business, but he’s got the protection of parody fair-use statutes. Television provides a safe channel through which animosity toward our corporate overlords can be expressed under the safe cover of just-kidding.
A heartening return to form following the wrongheaded “Buddha Box” last week, “Unfulfilled” takes some rather pointed shots at the famously litigious Amazon, and there’s no overstating how satisfying it feels to hear a voice on television speaking out against the retail giant. I’ll confess now that I am indeed one of the liberal New York media elites the news has been warning you about, so the utter lack of concern over the impending arrival of Amazon’s second headquarters (a thing you can only have one of!) from local government officials not named Ocasio-Cortez has been maddening.
But whether Trey Parker and Matt Stone like it or not, South Park is part of the mainstream, and it’s no small matter that they’re giving some vital talking points a space in which to be articulated. Forcing a passionately, unambiguously pro-worker stance onto the airwaves would be an accomplishment enough on its own — dayenu — but that Stone and Parker lodge legitimate criticisms while also making fun of Jeff Bezos proves most liberating of all.
Mirroring the inevitable fates of the targeted land in Long Island City and Crystal City, South Park has been gobbled up by the online commerce company. But because they’re playing host to a fulfillment center instead of corporate offices, actual townspeople get access to the jobs it affords. At first, this seems like good news; we get an early montage of fast-motion hustle and bustle, showing laborers laboring and automated machinery functioning as designed. Let your guard down, and you might even catch yourself starting to feel nostalgic for the era of American industry and productivity that this sequence is angling to evoke, a time when factory workers’ sheer perspiration made this country an economic superpower.
Just as the Irish immigrants that came to fill American factories soon found the conditions unlivable, however, so too do the Amazon workers come to resent the pitiable lot they’ve been dealt. A particularly grisly workplace accident results in one assembly-line supervisor getting mangled and condensed into a small box constantly spouting Marxist talking points, and that’s the final straw for the underclass. Right when Butters, Cartman (still isolated in his Buddha Box), and the kids need new materials to adorn bikes they’re riding in a parade, the Amazon staff decides to go on strike for reasonable wages and safer facilities. In comes Bezos to quell the dissent, portrayed here with the bulbous cranium of Superman foe Brainiac, and the butt-shaped head of the alien from Evolution that had a butt for a head.
The A-plot of this episode shows South Park at its best, directing its nasal-voiced mockery at a target that truly deserves it and doing so relentlessly. Parker and Stone make Bezos into a figure as removed from the average human being as the actual Jeff Bezos; it’s just that this one communicates telepathically, watches omnipotently through the Alexa panopticon, and talks like a supervillain. (“See how the worker begins to question his determination? Without his Amazon Prime status, he fluctuates between being and non-being.”) Both coming from middle-class backgrounds, Parker and Stone have the expected chips on their shoulders about one-percenter greed, and they put it into cathartic, vicious play here.
The plot then diverges to follow the kids to an Annihilation-looking mall overrun by vegetation and the white-eyed zombies of its former employees, from Cinnabon’s bun-glazer to that one guy who always seems to be demo-throwing the loop-de-loop toy plane. Aside from Cartman’s complaint that everyone has started doing “their own thing,” and the hint that next week’s continuation of this story may address the grander narrative standing of the characters, it mostly distracts from the more pressing and entertaining action back at the ranch. Once the final minutes make clear that this will all be picked up again next week for the season finale, it starts to make a bit more sense that the half-hour would be compelled to kill some time. Ideally, their bike parade and their enemy Larry will somehow get woven into the bubbling anti-Amazon sentiments around town, though South Park can be a show that punishes you for giving it the benefit of the doubt.
This week, however, they’ve done good and done it well. TV hasn’t been shy about its anxieties revolving around the tech boom; the final season of Parks and Recreation, for one, made an impassioned argument for individual rights in the face of business behemoths. But to give these fears a name and to speak it aloud with specificity, to call out Amazon in no uncertain terms, makes a difference. Real people watch South Park, a fact that I know because so many of them have furiously contacted me via Twitter. Frightening as the notion may be, this show is a space where public opinion is born. Today, Jeff Bezos’s butt-head — tomorrow, perhaps, a more humane status quo.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
• By far the most unsettling aspect of Amazon is their dogged commitment to convincing everyone that there’s nothing to be unsettled by, a methinks-thou-dost-protest-too-much on the scale of an international PR campaign. The little sign reading, “Work hard. Have fun. Make history” is so perfectly inhuman that I assumed it couldn’t have possibly been made up. Lo and behold! An entire essay could be written on the chilling coded subtext of a company instructing its underlings to “have fun” and “make history.”
• This week’s soundtrack cuts: the speedy montage at the factory plays to the tune of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s cover of “Sixteen Tons,” an old Merle Travis song written about his father’s experiences busting his hump in the coal mines. As far as I can tell, the “Unfulfilled” song moaning that “someone just bitch-slapped the smile off of me” is an original composition.
• The newscaster tentatively asking the man-in-the-box, “If you pay for shipping, can you go anywhere you want?” made me laugh. In these dark times, by which I mean both 2018 in general and season 22 of South Park, what more can a guy ask for?