South Park (Classic): “Gnomes”/“Prehistoric Ice Man”
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South Park (Classic): “Gnomes”/“Prehistoric Ice Man”

“Gnomes” (season 2, episode 17; originally aired 12/16/1998)

This episode introduces Tweek, a nervous, jittery lad with a strangled voice (“I can’t take this kind of pressure. Sweet Jesus, no!”) His behavior, despite what one might guess at from his name, is connected to his family’s business; his father, Mr. Tweak, runs the local coffee shop that he inherited from his father, and the Tweaks are so devoted to coffee as a way of life that they keep the poor kid in a state of over-caffienated sleep deprivation. When Mr. Garrison lumps Tweek in with the fab four on a group project for a report on current events, Tweek proposes that they write about the underpants gnomes who scamper around stealing people’s boxers and briefs. Thanks to his wide-awake state, he’s the only person who can see these magical beings, or at least the only person who notices them. The boys suspect Tweek is nuts but are unable to think of anything better, and agree to a sleepover at his house, so they can stay up late and see if the underpants gnomes make their regular appearance.

Mr. Tweak has other ideas. He has been visited at his store by a representative for the massive coffee chain Harbucks, which is offering to buy him out, to the tune of $500,000. Mr. Tweak, whose mellow-roasted voice signals the depths of his insanity, refuses, because he has it in his head that, as a small businessman who has roots in the community and confers that personal touch on his customers, he is morally superior to faceless corporate behemoths. Harbucks finally throws up its hands and, wearying of its doomed attempts to make him rich, decides to put one of its shops in South Park anyway, which will have the effect of running the little guy out of business. Mr. Tweak persuades the boys to accept a paper he has written about the evils of corporations and present it as their own work, figuring that his views will seem harder to resist when they come from the mouths of adorable moppets.

The plan goes off without a hitch, and the whole town gets behind the Mayor’s proposition that Harbucks be voted out of existence. Unfortunately, the boys have been pressed into service to write yet another paper denouncing corporations, since everyone enjoyed the first one so much. Since they have no actual ideas of their own on the subject, they do the obvious, logical thing and go directly to Mr. Tweak and ask him to write another paper for them, and he is of course only too happy to comply. Wait, no, sorry, that was a dream I had. Instead, the boys seek out the underpants gnomes, who first explain that stealing underpants is the basis of their underground economy, and that it works swimmingly because, well, trust us, it just does.

Then the gnomes, boasting of their supreme understanding of the nature of corporations, offer to write the boys a paper, which the boys present to the people of South Park. This time, they present the argument that corporations are always great, the bigger the better, because the only way that an outfit like Harbucks gets big in the first place is if it has a superior product to peddle. Once the people of South Park recover from their shock, they agree that, although they used to believe that corporations were bad because they heard a bunch of cute kids say so, they now believe the opposite because, in addition to a bunch of cute kids saying so, the pro-corporation argument is obviously wisdom incarnate. Even Mr. Tweak is forced to agree, and is rewarded with the offer of a job running the South Park branch of Harbucks.

“Gnomes” used to be Exhibit A in arguments that South Park is a single-minded Libertarian-conservative tract passing for a TV cartoon. Leaving aside the fact that no rational person could watch any three episodes of this series and come away with the feeling that it’s single-minded about anything, the episode feels less like an argument for unfettered free markets than an attack on sentimentality about small businesses. It’s driven more by sheer, ornery contrarianism than any belief system that draws on coherent thought or actual observation of the world we live in. In its simplest form, the episode seems to make a case that, in a free country, it’s wrong to try to outlaw successful businesses. I’m not sure who would argue otherwise, assuming we’re not dealing with the kind of knuckleheads who think that any kind of government regulations or anti-trust and anti-monopoly legislation amounts to outlawing successful businesses.

Parker and Stone must have sensed that this wouldn’t be enough to stack the deck in the favor of corporations, so they go that extra mile and also insist that corporations must be successful not be because they can spend untold millions on advertising or stamp out smaller competitors—something that they have been known to do without even offering these schmoes half a million dollars first—but because they make a superior product. Doesn’t it just follow that, in a free market where people can choose what to buy, any company’s success would match up perfectly with the quality of what it’s selling? This argument is presented literally, with a straight face—everyone agrees that Harbucks’ coffee is delicious, whereas Mr. Tweak’s tastes like “raw, bland sewage”—and there is literally no possibility that Parker and Stone believe it. I’d go so far as to imagine they’d regard it as slanderous if someone came out and said that they have it on good authority that Trey Parker and Matt Stone thinks that McDonald’s makes the best hamburgers in America, certainly better than anything in any small-kitchen diner. But that’s the argument. Keep in mind that these guys once made a movie, which grossed some $50 million, which included a song entirely devoted to expressing the opinion that Michael Bay movies are shit. It is not an opinion that I disagree with, but intellectual consistency demands acknowledging that Pearl Harbor, which is the very definition of a movie as a corporate product, made a hell of a lot more than $50 million.

If the people who made this episode don’t really believe three-quarters of what it presents as common sense, what do they believe? I think they believe that the kind of hokey nostalgia and self-glorification of the little guy that Mr. Tweak goes for is rank horseshit. And it gets up their nose, in a way that flimfammery and open corruption by big corporations doesn’t. It’s a deeply felt episode but not one that seems thought out. (Is it a joke that the wisdom regarding corporations comes from the gnomes, who have devoted their lives to a nonsensical business plan they can’t even fake-explain?) You can see that most clearly in the token scene that establishes a level of moral equivalency between Harbucks and Mr. Tweak. Because adults have been too cowed to buy coffee from Harbucks, the local dealer tries selling the stuff to kids, using a Joe Camel-like cartoon character. This gets him bawled out by a woman passerby. By any standard what the guy is doing is wrong, but in the context of this episode, it’s hard not to feel that you’re meant to feel sorry for the man on the receiving end of a self-righteous, “What about the children!?” diatribe.

At its core, this is an episode about which kind of aesthetics you find most objectionable in a marketing pose. (One thing that goes unspoken is that plenty of corporations use the same kind of “aw, shucks” marketing approach as the humble Mr. Tweak.) I almost wonder if Parker and Stone didn’t realize how screwy things were getting, and how muddled their bullshit detectors had become, because they unconsciously identified with Harbucks. They weren’t exactly DreamWorks by this time, but they’d come far enough from their beginnings as a couple of guys cobbling together animated shorts that they’d begun hearing charges that they’d sold out. Maybe they wanted to say that they got to the top of the heap fast because they deserved to, based on their hard work and the quality of the results, and couldn’t figure out how to do it without extending that compliment to every scumbag with a corner office. 

Yet, for all its scrambled thinking, “Gnomes” is often a  funny episode. Parker and Stone may not know as much as they think they do, but they know what pisses them off, and that, combined with their comic imaginations, makes them capable of great satire, a commodity that does not grow on trees. Clear thinking you can provide for yourself.

“Prehistoric Ice Man” (season 2, episode 18; originally aired 1/20/1999)

It’s no small relief that the season finale has nothing remotely significant, or even controversial, to say about anything. It’s just a goof, and a funny one.  If it has any message at all—and I’m not sure that it does—it’s that things move so fast these days (i.e., in the late 1990s), and we’ve all gotten so prone to instant nostalgia and so adept at moving on while caricaturing periods of the recent past that three years can see like a millennium ago. But maybe that’s too serious a read on it, and it’s all just about Parker and Stone being in a silly mood. Either way, it’s funny to look back 13 years ago to see what the year 1996 looked like from the vantage point of people making fun of it from the vantage point of the year 1999.

Kyle falls into “an ice cavern” and discovers a guy frozen in a block of ice. The boys know from science-fiction movies that this is a prehistoric ice man, and that he can be thawed out and become their link to a lost world, as well as their weird friend. So they haul the ice man back to town, interrupting a brawl that has broken out in the town square over a vote on whether to reinstitute capital punishment. (“All those in favor, say ‘Yippee!’”) Dr. Mephisto steps in and offers to take charge of resuscitating the ice man, with the Mayor’s blessing. (“Sure, sure, sure, be my guest, knock your socks off.”) Meanwhile, Kyle and Stan have had a falling-out over which of them deserves credit for the discovery, and whether to name it “Gorak” or “Steve.”

After a few days standing over the block of ice with a blow dryer, Mephisto has not only revived the ice man but concluded, from his Eddie Bauer wardrobe, that he must have been “frozen in time over 32 months.” Once he’s fully thawed, his flannel shirt and modest goatee confirm that he is indeed a creature of the mid-’90s. Mephisto sticks him in a room containing  “Re-Elect Clinton” and Fargo posters, pumps in Ace Of Base through the sound system, and displays him to a gawking crowd through one-way glass. “Here we see the iceman is trying to gain access to the Internet on the computer. The Internet was still not very big in his time, so it frightens and confuses him.” There are also some creepy guys who seem to be representatives of the military-industrial complex lurking about. The boys know that the ice man—they’re still fighting over whether to call him Gorak or Steve, though he says he prefers “Larry”—has to be rescued and set free.

The boys free the ice man, but he’s so dispirited about being a man out of time—a feeling exacerbated by the discovery that, in the three years he’s been gone, his wife has remarried and had a couple of kids, ages 8 and 13—that he sits in a tub in the back yard, spraying water from a hose over himself, desperately attempting to re-freeze. Kyle has a better idea. He’s found out about a place called Des Moines, which is perpetually three years behind the rest of the country. If they can get the ice man there, he’ll fit right in and be able to restart his life.

The sharpest observation here about how different things can seem when you look back is unintentional. The boys first discover the ice man because they’re playing at being explorers, in emulation of their new hero, Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, whose exploits they’ve been watching on television. I can think of easier things than trying to explain Steve Irwin’s brief vogue to someone who wasn’t there at the time, but it was real all right: I can remember, in the summer of 2002, regularly looking up when I was in the Times Square area and seeing a huge billboard advertising the Crocodile Hunter movie and thinking, yep, it’s a great time to be alive. He’s depicted here as a high-spirited oaf obsessed with sticking his thumb up the asses of animals and people, explaining that his job is to “look for more of the world’s beautiful creatures, so we can learn more about them by pissing them off immensely.”

This is all in good fun, but seven years later, Irwin was killed during filming when a stingray pierced his chest, and South Park enjoyed one of the most pointless controversies of its existence when, less than two months later, the show depicted Irwin at a party in the afterlife with the stingray still attached to his body. It wasn’t the worst joke in the world, but considering that Irwin’s greatest sin was goofiness, and that he did have loved ones still mourning him who would have had to be living in a black hole not to have heard about this, it does seem unaccountably cruel—especially coming from people smart enough to have found a different way to fill those 40 seconds of screentime. I suspect that Parker and Stone were so impressed with the fact that they had the ability to include such an up-to-date reference and get the show on the air while the newsprint was still fresh that this overrode every circuit in their brains that controlled judgments regarding basic morality, and the memory of this fall from grace does complicate one’s enjoyment of the jokes about Irwin here. With great power comes great responsibility, guys.

Stray observations:

  • Kyle and Stan still haven’t made up when Kenny is fatally squished by a conveyer belt. “Oh my God,” cried Stan, “they killed Kenny!” The line hangs there uncomfortably. Finally, Kyle answers, “What!? I’m not talking to you.”
  • This wraps up both the second season of South Park and this summer installment of TV Club Classic. The fall TV season is about to hit the beach full blast, and will be demanding our full attention. From what we’ve seen of it already, it fully promises to be a season that Mr. Hankey would be proud of. Howdy ho!

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