It’s been a fairly contentious season of South Park thus far. The second half of the 15th season was generally viewed as a strong one for the series, but there have been quite a few peaks and valleys here in 2012. Which were the peaks? Which were the valleys? Well, everyone has his/her own (extremely vocalized) opinions on that, and I’m not about to try and establish a general consensus here at the midseason finale. While trying to predict reactions to individual episodes at this point is essentially impossible, I’ll go out on a slight limb and predict that many will have loved tonight’s midseason finale “Cartman Finds Love.”
South Park dropped “You’re Getting Old” at this time last year. While expecting something that shockingly muted and mature was probably a bad idea, I for one was curious how Trey Parker and Matt Stone would choose to end this particular bloc of episodes. Even if “Cartman Finds Love” had much less serious ideas on its mind than “You’re Getting Old,” there was an sweet, empathetic core to this half-hour that the show does so well when it puts its mind to it. Although this season has dealt with the rise of Big Brother, infomercial scams, and a shitload of reality-show parodies, South Park can still drop an emotional bomb at the drop of a hat. What makes “Cartman” so strong is the juxtaposition of Eric’s genuine desire to see Token matched up with new girl Nichole and the batshit insane racism that goes into that genuine desire.
With the sound down, tonight’s episode plays like a pre-teen colorblind version of Cyrano, with Eric helping the shy Token overcome his fears in order to win the fair Nichole. Given the Single White Female intensity of Cartman’s pursuit of this relationship, I expected a narrative twist in which Eric himself fell for Nichole, which would then lead to Cartman battling his own prejudices, immaturity, and his alter ego/stand-in Tinkerbell, Cupid Me. Instead, South Park went the route of Cartman overselling his fictitious gay relationship with Kyle in order to socially engineer a relationship between the only two black students in the school.
Mr. Garrison’s “history” lesson on Game Of Thrones early on is a hysterical throw-away gag, but it also helps illuminate the power plays going on throughout the episode. Sure, it’s a stretch to compare the happenings in Westeros with those in this quiet Colorado town. But Cartman’s Machiavellian techniques employ misdirection, lies, the spreading of rumors, and the use of the bully pulpit to stir the masses, maneuver his enemies, and protect his loved ones. (A Lannister always pays his debts, and a Cartman always ensures that he gets his way.) That his “loved ones” fit into some horrific worldview that all couples should stay within their own racial groups is beside the point to Eric, which makes it all the funnier for us to witness. Moreover, we don’t even have to punish Cartman in our heads. The show does it for us by pairing him up with his “equal”: an unattractive girl with lethally bad breath. Quite often, Cartman escapes episodes such as this essentially unscathed, but not tonight.
While the show overtly mentioned Game Of Thrones tonight, I couldn’t help but wonder if Parker/Stone were also not-so-subtly commenting upon the recent uproar around another HBO program as well. Yes, Girls has gotten waaaaay too much ink (virtual or real) recently, and simply mentioning the show is probably inviting a line of comments that I’ll regret unleashing. But in Nichole’s father William, in addition to the courtship/breakup/reconciliation of Nichole/Token, “Cartman Finds Love” has some pretty astute things to say about the catch-22 when trying to decipher true intent in this minefield of a topic. William wants his daughter to be free to date whomever she wants, but would really prefer she date white children specifically to avoid the type of pairing people like Cartman perceive as “natural.” But such an attitude is inherently self-limited, just as Token’s blind insistence on not being interested in her upon first view. All three are acting honestly, but simply by the mere fact that they have to think at all about the possible permutations that would unfold from external sources cripples them right out of the gate. (And no, that wasn’t a Luck reference. I’m done with the HBO shows, I promise.)
These three characters are forced to deal with these problems in a way that Hannah and her Brooklyn Girls friends are not, which has been the source of at least some (though far from all) of the heated debate surrounding that show. Hannah certainly could engage in it down the line, but time is a luxury that Token and Nichole don’t have. Did Lena Dunham’s show directly inspire tonight’s installment? I honestly have no idea. But given the nature of South Park’s production schedule, the pop culture alchemy of this particular moment certainly could have influenced the episode’s production. It will almost surely influence its impact. Throughout this season, South Park has clearly demarcated its objects of ire. But that’s not to say a little subtlety couldn’t have crept into tonight’s episode.
Actually being correct about this, or any, interpretation of the show is somewhat beside the point. Authorial intent is a murky topic, and trying to outguess the writers of this or any show is a fool’s errand. What’s great about “Cartman Finds Love” is that, more than any episode of the show thus far this season, it allows for this type of analysis to occur at all. Too many recent weeks have gone by with the show either explicitly stating its theme or simply forgoing a theme altogether. Now, having no theme isn’t a crime. But it doesn’t provide much fodder for fruitful analysis either. “Fuck fruitful analysis,” cryeth some of you. “Was it FUNNY?” I can’t answer that for you. I can say that I found it occasionally quite funny, but also that I didn’t think “being funny” was the primary goal of this episode. Thus, my sporadic laughter was a feature, not a bug, this time around. Even if tonight’s midseason finale didn’t give us quite as much to think about as the show did this time last year, it still provided plenty of food for thought. And that’s more than enough for now.
- Turning around this review in timely fashion meant I didn’t get a chance to closely look at the Game Of Thrones chalkboard writing, but I know I can count on you to comment on the choicest Easter eggs therein.
- Everything Cartman said to sell his relationship with Kyle was gold. “I’m more out than Kyle is… But we get back home and he’s like the best boyfriend I’ve ever had.” “I want to hold you every morning and love you every night, Kyle.” I sort of expected Blake Griffin and Chris Andersen to start making out on the court after the latter statement.
- A small detail that sold Nichole’s character wonderfully: She drew hearts instead of the letter “O” when writing about Token in her diary.
- Just when I had gotten All-4-One’s “I Swear” out of my head once and for all, along comes this freakin’ episode. Sigh.
- The warm-up sequence to the Clippers/Nuggets was great, filled with little details that felt as authentic as the rhythms of the pitchmen in “Cash For Gold.” I especially enjoyed the line reading of “And a good try!” when Stacy made an ill-fated three-point attempt.
- “Just try the white meat. I know it’s a little dry, but there’s a lot more of it!” Quote of the night? I vote yes. You?