Tonight’s South Park may not have been the strongest episode of the three since its return, but it was certainly the strangest. It was one half dark satire, one half acid trip. What seemed initially like the show’s take on school bullying turned into an epic struggle between two rats for supremacy over their species. Not exactly the place I expected when the episode first started, but since when does an episode of South Park ever take a linear path? While the two main plots did intersect (literally, in the case of a certain bus), they spent too long apart to truly feel like one and the same story. Both had strong elements, but didn’t fully mix.
On one strand of the story: a new website called the South Park Elementary Eavesdropper is wreaking havoc on the student population. After word breaks out over a student soiling his own pants, school officials call in Eric Cartman for a conference. Seems that Eric’s taunting of former student Cory Durant, who also soiled himself a year ago, led him to kill himself out of shame. They beg Cartman not to have history repeat itself, and promise to reward him if he does so. This, of course, leads him to start feeding other students laxatives. In Cartman’s mind, equality is only achieved when everyone has soiled briefs. It’s an odd point of view, but you can’t say the kid plays favorites when it comes to this topic.
In the other strand, we reconnect with former class pet Lemmiwinks, as well as the three animal spirits he met while traversing Mr. Slave’s digestive system back in season six’s “The Death Camp of Tolerance.” The Frog King appears to warn Lemmiwinks that his brother, the rat Wikileaks, is behind the Eavesdropper, and in classic Cain/Abel fashion, the two are destined to fight to the death. The Sparrow Prince and The Catata Fish also appear to goad him on, but when their cries for action fall on deaf ears, they enlist the students, now terrified they will be next on Wikileaks’ website. I can’t believe I get paid for writing paragraphs like this one. Bless you, South Park.
While I enjoyed the Lemmiwinks material fine enough (especially all the callbacks to the epic minstrel rock from his amazing journey through Mr. Slave’s insides), Cartman’s storyline was both far more immature and yet infinitely more insidious. “Bass to Mouth” straight up blames Cartman for a student ending his life, yet often seemed hesitant to really go for the jugular with this storyline afterwards. Granted, Mr. Garrison and company literally throw Cartman under the bus in order to preserve their own skin once their plot is uncovered by Wikileaks. But did anyone really fear for Eric’s life? Attempting to make as many people defecate as possible in a downsized version of “Crapped Themselves to Death” is perfectly fine and quite amusing. But there’s an implicit connection between school bullying and adult bullying that the show stumbled upon but never really fully addressed.
While Wikileaks was mentioned by name (and by mane, given the rat’s blonde hair), the real target for Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to be sites like TMZ, which are the natural extension of bullies in grade school. There’s clearly a difference between a drunk movie star and an impressionable grade school student. But the impulses behind gossip sites and the Eavesdropper aren’t different. Having the casual cruelty deployed by each student towards another actually make an impact in the form of fucking SUICIDE is a bold, but not unprecedented, point for the show to make. The show is obviously not afraid to be cutting in its observations. There was blood in the water tonight, but the show kept settling for stool in the pants.
Should this have turned into the animated version of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant? Of course not. But once the show introduced Cory Durant’s plight, it opened up a bleaker side to the weekly interactions of these students. “Bass To Mouth” existed in a world of animal spirits leading an army to war, but also existed in a world in which Kenny’s weekly resurrections were replaced by Durant’s permanent death. That South Park can include both is what makes the show unique. But just because it CAN include both doesn’t mean that it always works when it does so. Perhaps The Catata Fish’s lengthy dismissal of Wikileaks’ accusations served to cast a light on the other plot’s shadow of death. But it’s not as if the show isn’t afraid to go dark when necessary. The monologue that gave the episode its name was laugh-out-loud funny in and of itself, but didn’t really gel with the more compelling material around it.
Were these episodes not turned around in a single week, perhaps the writers could have thought of a more elegant solution to the Eavesdropper’s identity. The Lemmiwinks story provided plenty of laughs but also took up valuable time that could have been spent on the school kids turning on each other. Having those students who enjoyed the site, only to turn against each other as more students appeared on it, would have created a contagious feeling of paranoia amongst the student body. Cartman’s plot already contained traces of that, with the administration slowly realizing the trouble they could get in for following Eric’s lead. I love a Frog King apparition as much as the next person, but I prefer him in the proper context. His presence wasn’t a square peg in a round hole, but it wasn’t exactly a symbiotic fit, either.
Again: both sides were individually fine, and only problematic when combined together. That both plots connected is fine. But I would have rather seen both stories connect. There's a difference in having both strands intersect and having both strands actually relate. Neither one informed, commented upon, or reflected the other. They simply shared the same real estate for 30 minutes of television. I’d happily watch The Further Adventures of Lemmiwinks in the near future. But I can’t help but feel his presence tonight undercut what could have been potent, important commentary on the other half of the episode. Cory Durant wasn’t onscreen at all tonight, but his presence was definitely felt. That his presence got overshadowed as the episode progressed was a missed opportunity, one that the show might not have again for quite some time.
- I loved Cartman closing his eyes while coming up with his master plan to poison the student body. Part of me wishes I could have gotten a POV shot inside his mind, but seeing HIM see it was definitely the right choice.
- We saw the return of the “I think we all learned something here” coda in tonight’s episode.
- I’m worried we’re never gonna see Stan’s flask again at this point. That’s a little disappointing. And yes, I realize I’m rooting for pre-teen alcoholism.
- “Everybody craps their pants, nobody’s singled out, problem solved.” Eric Cartman is like Syndrome from The Incredibles, only about feces.
- “Heh heh. Right. That’s why it’s super funny. To me.”
- “His heart is so heavy. I weep for him.”
- “I am Catatafish. I am a great wizard. And, I am a friend. And I am a ghost, besides, of course, being a fish.”
- “Did I say ass to trout? I meant to say bass to mouth. Though I guess it’s basically the same thing.”