After a middling and meandering back half of the show’s 16th season, South Park roared back tonight with a penultimate installment that had more bite than anything else that aired this fall. Whereas many topics this season have either been too easy (Honey Boo Boo) or too outdated (the fall of Blockbuster), attacking Lance Armstrong’s recent demise would have been strong enough on its own. Instead, “A Scause For Applause” used the Armstrong revelations to explore a much deeper topic: the need for people to believe in a cause greater than themselves, and those that would exploit that desire for financial gain.
Honestly, when the show opened up by pivoting the spotlight from Armstrong toward a ’roided-out Son of God, I hid behind my desk, unsure of how best to review such a narrative in a way that wouldn’t inspire a holy war in the comments. But soon, the show quickly moved off of that in favor of linking Jesus to a long line of morally complex men persecuted for inspiring others and then failing to live up to the love bestowed upon them. What Jesus, Lance Armstrong, and Stan Marsh all have in common, according to “A Scause For Applause,” is the ability to inspire others before falling from grace while desperately clinging to that position of social power. That power becomes problematic in and of itself, both useful and yet the very thing that undoes them. It’s not unlike Gandalf’s statement to Frodo early in The Fellowship Of The Ring: “I would use this ring from a desire to do good. But through me it would wield power too great and terrible to imagine.” The only difference is that Gandalf didn’t use HGH before fighting the Balrog. (As far as we know.)
Several things make this storyline potent. First and foremost is the way that South Park doesn’t make any of the episode’s martyrs remotely innocent. Quite often, the show will feature some of its characters unaware of the horrible things in which they are engrossed. Here, Stan is pretty much a straight-up dick from the moment that he realizes his refusal to take off his “W.W.J.D.” bracelet gives him a pulpit from which to speak. It also gives him the ability to film a Armstrong-esque commercial for Nike, which lines his pockets with dollars and his walls with “STANd STRONG”. Even if the plight of Belarusian farmers is tragic, Stan’s interest in them are a byproduct of ego rather than a desire to help his fellow man. Those seeking to discredit him might have a problem with human exceptionalism. But the accusations they make also have kernels of truth within them.
But do methods and motive matter if these figures inspire others towards genuine action? That’s the conundrum at play with Armstrong, and “A Scause For Applause” doesn’t ignore (even if they merely allude to) the good deeds engendered by Armstrong’s fame. But the other ambiguous area here concerns just how “genuine” those actions truly are. Are they motivated by empathy? By cultural pressure? By the desire to overcompensate for selfish behavior? By the desire to belong to a group? All options are possible, and all play out in one shape or another in tonight’s installment. Mr. Mackey really, really cares about those Belarusian farmers. But he also only cares about them so long as they justify his purchase of a bracelet proclaiming his support of them.
All of this leads us to the bracelets themselves, the origin of which represents the absolute high point of this season to date. When “A Scause For Applause” went full-on Dr. Seuss in its depiction of the factory that produces the instantaneously ubiquitous bracelets, it was both out-of-nowhere and yet perfectly deployed. Part of its genius lay simply in the sequence’s execution, in which seminal visual images from Dr. Seuss’ vast library took over the show’s normal animation style. But the other part of its brilliance lay in the way it deployed that sweet, rhyming approach to demonstrate how easily such an insidious business model could penetrate the town of South Park. When the proprietor of this business realizes he has rung the town dry of its money (“It’s the sound of the very last cent being spent!”), he hightails it out of town, leaving the town’s citizens literally bound and gagged by the bracelets they have purchased. It’s one of the more harrowing images South Park has produced in some time. For those that say this show no longer has bite, show them a screenshot of that sequence.
If there’s a criticism to be made of tonight’s episode, it’s that it didn’t end right there. Instead, the show makes one subtext explicit (showing Jesus taking HGH, rather than continue to convincingly insinuate both he and Stan were lying all episode) in order to have a “Jesus Smash!” sequence inside the Scauses Factory. Given how subtle and smart the episode had been until that point, it was disappointing to see it stumble towards the finish line. An updated version of the Sermon on the Mount nearly saved things, but “A Scause For Applause” crashed again with an out-of-date “Save Pussy Riot” T-shirt as the punchline for the entire episode. What should have be an exclamation point on a strong half-hour instead turned out to be an ellipsis on a half-finished sentence.
Still, that wasn’t enough to sour the episode by a long shot. When South Park takes aim at mass social psychology versus specific pop-culture references, the results are still strong at this point in the show’s run. Tonight’s installment wasn’t about doping, but about belief systems. It painted both sides as deeply flawed, but far from inherently evil. If anything, the only evil tonight came from a third party seeking to exploit the other two for monetary purposes. In shuffling off one deity (or bracelet) for another, the show could have made a statement about the equal pointlessness of them all. (In the case of Cartman, you could say that’s true.) But one could also view the casting off of one bracelet for another as a way to constantly seek inspiration and motivation from the purest source possible. Our restlessness may not always derive from cynicism, but sometimes from eternal optimism. It’s hysterical to see a confused Butters urge on his new hero. (“A little unnecessary, but go Stan!” he says after Stan angrily goes after his accusers.) But it’s also incredibly endearing. Butters believes in Stan because he desperately wants to believe in something. And while a factory might use that desire against him, that doesn’t mean it’s an inherently wrong impulse to have.
- Getting this review up on time meant not spending nearly enough time with that first extended Seuss sequence, but I’m sure the Easter eggs in there will be more than covered in the comments below.
- The less said about the retarded fish, the better. I get what the show was trying to do there, but it just didn’t work for me.
- “You just want me to change the channel or go and make a TV program written just for you?” The French-Swedish official was too strange by half to really make an impact, but I did enjoy the way that this episode quickly sketched out the relationship between him and his extremely patient wife.
- Jesus doesn’t know how to pronounce “Belarus.” Those farmers never had a chance.