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A chaotic South Park season premiere sets the stage for the season

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South Park

"Member Berries"

Season 20 , Episode 1

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South Park’s recent foray into more serialized seasons has resulted in a creative boom for the series, now on its twentieth season. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s crudely animated, crudely written show has managed to consistently find ways to reinvent itself, whether by leaning harder on its satirical edge, developing its cast in deeper, unique ways, improving the scale of the animation, or establishing longer story arcs. Last season brought all those aspects together as the citizens of South Park dealt with the violently aggressive bro-type PC Principal, gentrification, and inexplicable fan-fiction. Not everything worked (“Safe Space” fell into the trap of misunderstanding what safe spaces actually are, and I’m not quite sure if the “everyone’s an ad” finale hit the mark), but you can’t deny the show now has a verve that hasn’t been seen in quite a while.

So South Park is in a prime position to attack this election, which–let’s face it–is fucking ridiculous. Parker and Stone tend to get a lot of criticism for their “both sides are garbage” rhetoric, but this presidential race is, at a pure political experience level, lopsided in a way that would even give these guys pause. So how would they approach the improbable success of Donald Trump–or rather, Mr. Garrison, whose skin is now a gross shade of brown/orange? By giving the former teacher a layer of self-reflection that seems to elude his real life counterpart. Mr. Garrison and Caitlyn Jenner celebrate their slight increase in the polls up until the point where Mr. Garrison realizes he could actually win this thing. With no genuine political plan, the duo panic, and realize that they’re going to have to allow their turd sandwich of an opponent (Hillary Clinton) to win. That also means that Parker and Stone have brought back the old “giant douche or turd sandwich” bit, which honestly feels like the kind of old South Park sentiment that comes off pretty lazy these days.

“Member Berries” is aware of this to a certain extent, though. Much of the episode is supported by a new, special fruit that has a number of the South Park residents feeling good: member berries. They’re weird, high-pitched, talking grapes that speak in lofty, nostalgic terms. Listening (and consuming) them allow people to just relax and take in the so-called good memories of Ghostbusters, The Fugitive, and Bionic Man. The hidden problem here is that the people taking them seem to not give a crap about the real problems happening today, nor are taken aback when the berries start spouting the kind of “nostalgia” that’s basically racism. “’Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?” and “’Member when we were safer?” even jolt Randy from his lull. Randy, of all people! I don’t know if member berries will be part of the overall season, but I hope so: Randy is the perfect sap to fall victim to member berries; I get the sense we’ll be revisiting the both of them soon. Seeing Randy just spitting them out at the end is just too flat of a ending to that plot.

Really, the good stuff (as usual) comes from the actual children, starting with a hilarious and more biting piece of commentary. A packed stadium waits in earnest for a girls’ volleyball game–not to see them play, but to see which girls will sit in protest of the national anthem due to online harassment. The crowd and announcers are whipped into a frenzy when the four of the six girls sit (three of them not even black), a pretty sharp take that calls out the media’s sensationalism over the act of protest itself, not what the girls actually are protesting. It’s telling that the stadium empties out right afterward, leaving only a scant few to watch the actual game. “Member Berries” pushes that absurdity to even further extremes, as Congress goes to visit “reboot” extraordinaire J.J. Abrams to reboot the national anthem in a manner that will suit everyone. South Park hits the sad ridiculousness of this pretty hard–that the attention is so uniformly focused on making the anthem “suitable” for everyone that no one pays attention to the actual problems. Hell, Abrams doesn’t even change the song; he just “makes” it so it’s okay to stand, sit, kneel, or do whatever you want when the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played (which also ruins Mr. Garrison’s plan to throw the election). That’s a man that’s coasting on his member berries.

So of course the children are on their own, as always. An online troll by the name of “skankhunt42” is saying mean things about the girls online. Everyone suspects it’s Cartman (can you blame them?). And Cartman does no one any favors when he reads a “rebooted” fairy tale to kindergarteners filled with homophobia, sexism, and racism. Or, worse, when he calls an assembly to speak out against the harassment, but forces the mic in front of random girls to demand they be funny, right here and right now. It’s a perfect microcosm of that most insidious of trolling techniques: demanding satisfaction, debate, proof, etc. immediately and on their terms instead of actually, you know, finding that information on their own. Cartman makes a terrible advocate for social justice (although his real plan seems to be just to incite the gender war he sees as inevitable), and Kyle knows this, and the two are about to butt heads once again. It’s an old and tired conflict that’s been in part of South Park’s DNA for years, but it’s been Abram-ed with a twist: the actual skankhunt42 is none other than Kyle’s father! That’s how you do a reboot, and that’s how you do a season premiere. The twentieth season of South Park is going to be interesting.

Stray observations

  • Thanks to Dan Caffrey for letting me sub in tonight! He’ll be back covering for the show next week and the rest of the season.
  • No matter how many member berries I take, I’ll never be on board with the whole giant douche vs. turd sandwich concept. I rolled my eyes when South Park first introduced it and I’m rolling my eyes at it again.
  • The one thing that really bothered me? The announcer saying, “You’d have to be an absolute asshole to not stand and support it [Abrams’ revised national anthem]” while the camera focused on Colin Kaepernick. Not only was that a weirdly direct attack on Kaepernick and his protests, but it also felt like a weird, personal stance that Parker and Stone took against his protests. Given their “attack everything” position, it just seemed weird that they’d be upset at that–or maybe I’m just reading way too much into that shot.
  • Pretty amusing montage of Mr. Garrison and all the times he claimed to fuck his enemies to death. Too bad they didn’t call out Matt Lauer’s piss-poor job hosting that forum though.
  • With those shots of the various girls walking away from their TVs, I hope we get to see them really mix it up in the upcoming season. Wendy, Bebe, and Nicole need to be used more in the mix of South Park shenanigans, and since the main plot is all about them...
  • Watching Gerald grow more and more insidious as he reveled in his online persona was both disturbing and shockingly accurate. There’s way too many people who are normal and calm in real life but become monsters online, justifying it as if it’s no big deal. I’m very curious where that aspect of the show is going.