When last we saw South Park, the show took what Kyle tonight would have dubbed a huge left turn. “You’re Getting Old” marked a potential huge departure for the show, with some even thinking it could have served as a series finale for the program. With Trey Parker and Matt Stone under contract for the foreseeable future, no one seriously anticipated that they had seen the end of South Park. But it was unclear if what returned tonight on Comedy Central would resemble the show as it once was or something fundamentally different. That tension formed the central spine of “Ass Burgers”: Could South Park be anything new, and could anyone even allow such a change happen?
Those that feared the end of “You’re Getting Old” would be swept immediately under the rug had to breathe a sigh of relief upon seeing Stan living in a condo with his mother and sister at the outset of the episode. Not that divorce is happy fun times meant to be celebrated, but at least what happened at the mid-season break would matter on some level. (First Rule of storytelling: One cannot simply deploy Stevie Nick’s “Landslide” and expect a consequence-free future.) Stan still hears everything as literal shit, which doesn’t make him initially angry so much as increasingly isolated from those around him. The episode did an impressive job with its sound design in these early moments to really make it seem like he was moving through the world in an invisible sensory deprivation chamber, unable to connect with anything around him.
Once at school, things start to change. Impending HPV vaccinations dovetail with Stan’s attitude, leading Mr. Mackey to believe a recent flu vaccination contributed to the boy’s condition. In other words: This will undoubtedly be Jenny McCarthy’s favorite episode of South Park ever, people! Mandatory vaccinations are outlawed across the country, and Stan is sent to a facility to cure his condition. Once the show appeared to start down the path of actually showing those afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, I cringed in horror at the thought of trying to navigate this minefield of a topic. Luckily, the show sidestepped it quickly in favor of a parody of The Matrix starring The Secret Society of Cynics.
The Cynics try to co-op Stan into their plan by revealing what they “know”: that aliens or robots of genetically-altered humans (don’t ask them which one, because, well, fuck you, right?) have altered human perception to make it more pliable for their existence. In reality, the Cynics are just another way for Parker and Stone to mock those that think, for instance, only the first Matrix movie was good. Or that the original theatrical releases of Star Wars represent the only true version. (Insert your own source of outrage below. As if I need to prompt you to do so.) The Cynics’ preferred method of closing a new member’s eyes and dulling them to endure the world? Not a red pill or a blue pill, but a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey. Like ya do.
A sloshed Stan now thinks Adam Sandler movies are the greatest thing since sliced bread. But it is obviously a temporary balm that doesn’t fix the root problem. He tries to enlist Kyle in his new outlook on life, but he doesn’t possess a newly discovered engagement with the world so much as find another way to retreat from it. Kyle calls Stan out on his bullshit, and what follows is a surprisingly emotional scene in which both sides stand their ground, even as they feel the rift between them widening. Stan’s final words are both crude yet emotionally resonant: “Kyle, I love you. You’re a piece of shit though, fuck you… I love you.” There’s no way this should work, and yet it does. Like gangbusters.
The left turn that Kyle has taken himself at this point leads to Cartman Burgers, established in the wake of Eric’s earlier aural misunderstanding. He unsuccessfully tries to sell the school nurse on his condition by inserting hamburgers up his own ass as proof. But when Kyle unknowingly swipes a burger for his own consumption, Cartman finds that everyone loves the taste of burgers that have spent time in his secret storage facility. What feels at first like a Mallrats knock-off turns into a war with every major fast-food chain. The leaders of chains work together in a war room and deduce that Eric must distill the sum total of their foods into gaseous form, which then gets somehow applied to his own product. It’s a long, long set-up to get to the true punch line of this story (“It would have to be some kind of Super Dutch Oven!”), but it’s a hellaciously funny one all the same.
All sides converge in a shootout outside of Cartman’s house, with the Fast Food Army and the Secret Society engaging in a shootout that draws blood from both sides. At this point, Stan snaps from his stupor and offers what seems to be a sales pitch from Parker/Stone to the South Park audience. Stan doesn’t want things to go back to the way they were, but instead embraces the possibility of the unknown. He gets more and more excited by the prospect, essentially pitching possible storylines for the back half of the season… only to have his energy stunted by the reunion of his parents. The possibility of change seems thwarted. “Landslide” returns, almost like a cruel leitmotif, mocking “You’re Getting Old” and those that dared to believe it represented the possibility of lasting change.
And yet, in the final shot, Stan wakes up. He’s back in his old bed in his old house. Everything on the radio sounds the way it used to sound. His old friends show up to do their old things. Everything seems back to normal. But after walking out the door, the “camera” stays put, patiently waiting for Stan to return, open up his bottom drawer, and take a swig from a pint of Jameson. It’s an absolutely knockout final image, one ripe with potential meaning. It could mean that Parker and Stone hate that they can’t think of a new way to approach storytelling in the wake of their massive Broadway success with The Book of Mormon. It could mean that they still feel trapped by South Park itself. Or it could mean they had plenty of ideas about new directions in which the show could go, only to be shut down by Comedy Central (played in-show by Randy and Sharon).
Whatever the case may be, it will be interesting to see how this tension plays out over the back half of this season. After all, “a hard left” and “staying the course” aren’t the two sole options in play. We may end up down the road far from where we started, only to realize we moved so incrementally that we didn’t notice along the way. Hopefully, the show’s ability to combine puerile humor with sharp social commentary doesn’t disappear, whatever road it takes. However it plays out, I’m looking forward to taking that journey over these next few months.
- I don’t think you have to have Stan’s initial condition to find Terra Nova lacking in quality.
- Nice to see Steamy Ray Vaughn at the press conference for Stan, even if the two old men once so desperate to save his britches weren’t in attendance.
- Kids in school sure seem sick of the sexual tension between Kyle and Wendy.
- In case you’re curious: No, A.V. Club management did not at any time in the past dub any of you The Secret Society of Cynics back when anonymous comments were still part of the site.
- “I mean, you gotta snap out of it, Debbie.”
- “I wish those two would just screw and get it over with.” “Yeah.”
- “If there was social development disease, you wouldn’t call it ‘Asperger’s’. That’s… that’s just mean.”
- “We know where the Rock Creatures are!”
- “There’s aliens with a sniper chicken on me.”