The “fad episode” is a South Park tradition (or at least, it has been since around the time of season three's “Chinpokomon”). And as per tradition, nearly every one of them follows the same formula: Characters briefly latch onto something fleetingly popular and often inherently stupid—which is then obsessed about to the detriment of their relationships (or, occasionally, the safety of the entire town)—then, inevitably, they realize that the object of their obsession is dumb and drop it forever. And with few exceptions, that’s pretty much it. As formulas go, the fad episodes can be South Park at its most sharply satirical, its absolute silliest, and also its most disposable.
“Crème Fraiche” is actually the third fad episode this season, after the Facebook-parodying “You Have 0 Friends” and the NASCAR-dominated “Poor And Stupid.” And arguably, it’s the fourth if you include “It’s A Jersey Thing” (even though the “fad” there is more accurately a "culture," and one unwillingly adopted), or the fifth if you count the “Coon” trilogy as a reflection of pop culture’s current preoccupation with all things superhero. I point this out only because the fad episode used to be a semi-rare occurrence on South Park, appearing maybe once per season. (“Something You Can Do With Your Finger” in Season 4, “The Entity” in Season 5, “The Return Of The Fellowship Of The Ring To The Two Towers” in Season 6, etc.) Lately, however, it seems as though lots of South Park episodes start with some minor emblem of the zeitgeist (Purity rings! A&E reality shows! Inception!), then build their stories from there, and as a result, through sheer repetition, the flavor-of-the-month essence of the subjects they’re mocking starts to transfer to the episodes themselves, making them seem especially ephemeral. Even if they are funny.
That’s definitely the case with “Crème Fraiche”: It doubles down on the formula, with Randy—always the South Park character most prone to fads—getting sucked into the “food porn” craze, while his neglected wife Sharon finds solace in one of those Shake Weight things that make it look like you’re giving a particularly aggressive handjob. Driving home the parallels between their respective obsessions as substitutes for sex, Randy actually masturbates to Guy Fieri braising a rack of ribs (even right in front of the kids!) and calls a Food Network phone sex line, while Sharon jerks off her Shake Weight until it splooges a little "crème fraiche" of its own in her face and then spits out cab fare.
Randy’s sudden cooking addiction leads to him quitting his job and taking over at the school cafeteria, where he attempts to launch his own cooking show, Cafeteria Fraiche. Embarrassed as always by his dad—and hungry for food that isn’t a bullshit “deconstructed” pizza consisting of “Asian slaw on flatbread with parmesan aioli”—Stan enlists the other kids to help dissuade him from ever cooking again, with Cartman playing Gordon Ramsay and doing a convincing job of somehow making Gordon Ramsay seem like a melodramatic, hypercritical asshole.
Of course, that backfires, and because of “Gordon Ramsay’s” attention, Randy soon finds himself facing off in the Hell’s Kitchen Nightmares Iron Top Chef Cafeteria Throwdown Ultimate Cookoff Challenge, and then South Park gets to bring out a whole bunch of other TV chef caricatures like Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Paula Deen, Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis (and her “perky tats”), and a perpetually weeping Jamie Oliver, whom South Park must really hate. Somehow neither Anthony Bourdain nor Rachael Ray show up, despite both seeming like they would be remarkably easy to turn into cartoon characters.
Sharon, meanwhile, runs away with her Shake Weight, whose artificially intelligent “voice assist” program gives her just enough flattery, vague empathy, and empty reassurances to get her to give it a quick handy and put it into “sleep mode” whenever it wants. The “Shake Weight makes it look like you’re Christine-ing your O’Donnell” gag has been made before (and before and before), and although being a cartoon allowed South Park to go the extra step and actually have it spray simulated cum on a woman’s face as she mimed sticking a finger up its asshole, there really wasn’t much new to add here. (Ye olde joke about the “smaller white models” versus the “black Big Jim models” doesn’t really count.)
Hearing Shake Weight get more blatantly desperate as it pleaded for a “workout” was funny (“Come on, just really fast?”), as was the scene where it attempted to shrug off letting a hotel maid use it. (“This is ridiculous. Give Shake Weight a break.”) But again, much like Randy’s sudden, literal boner for the culinary arts, it was essentially one extended riff with minor escalations—one based on a subject that’s both kind of marginal and already well-mined. (As my wife sarcastically put it, in an obvious attempt to be quoted in my reviews like everyone else’s significant others around here, “Finally, someone stuck it to the Shake Weight!”)
Eventually these two storylines collide, with Randy rushing home mid-competition to try and find his precious crème fraiche, Sharon returning from the separation he didn’t know they were having, and Sharon looking for some sort of reconciliation to a crisis in their marriage Randy wasn’t even aware existed. Yet instead of talking about their problems—or putting any thematic bow on what came before through some sort of third-act speech, which is somewhat unusual for these sorts of episodes—Sharon simply puts her new hand job skills to work (while Stan listens outside), Randy gets sleepy and immediately decides that cooking is “dumb,” Sharon says goodbye to her Shake Weight (who’s off to help another marriage in crisis), and the circle of the South Park fad episode is complete.
In a way, “Crème Fraiche” itself seemed to acknowledge that it wasn’t exactly digging too deeply with the satire here—or perhaps I’m just reading too much into that brief glimpse of Terrance and Phillip spoofing the Progressive Auto commercials, i.e. by merely recreating one and then adding a fart joke. That’s definitely not far off from what “Crème Fraiche” did with its respective targets, really, and in a season that’s been full of some of the most self-referential episodes the show has ever done (“The Tale Of Scrotie McBoogerballs,” “200” and “201,” the “Coon” trilogy), you could maybe make a case for “Crème Fraiche” being an example of South Park’s creative team acknowledging that sometimes it also likes to keep things simple and just make an episode-long joke about jacking off and then draw funny pictures of Giada De Laurentiis’ tits, and what of it?
And if they were actually making that case, I’d say fair enough: In my opinion, this season of South Park may have been unusually crowded with somewhat disposable fad episodes, but it also boasted some of its most ambitious work, so to me “Crème Fraiche” had a giddy, last-day-of-school-after-a-hectic-semester, let’s-get-this-final-paper-over-with-so-we-can-get-out-of-here vibe. From the reviewer side, I can definitely appreciate that. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t grade it accordingly. Now go enjoy your vacation, you little smartasses.
- By sheer coincidence, I watched Hell’s Kitchen right before this episode—although, it’s barely a coincidence at all, as thanks primarily to my wife (an amateur chef herself), I watch a lot of cooking shows. Because there are, indeed, a fuckload of cooking shows. South Park is right about that.
- On that note, I am now considering blocking the Food Network and maybe the Travel Channel at my house, just so I don’t have to see another episode of Iron Chef or Andrew Zimmern eat another testicle or that Man Vs. Food guy scarf down another bucket of chicken wings. Sorry, I swear I'll stop talking about myself any second now.
- “You gonna deglaze that fucking pan? I’d deglaze the fuck out of that pan.” File that one away for your idle Thanksgiving Day kitchen chatter.
- “Well, hearing you bitch about your dad is super interesting, Stan. I hope you do it all lunch period.” Definitely not enough Cartman this episode.
- The Cafeteria Fraiche theme song was funny—a knowingly goofy, amiably half-assed thing that embodied the spirit of the entire episode.
- The timing of Saturday Night Live’s very similar Paula Deen parody this past weekend is unfortunate. But then, there were a lot of things unfortunate about that parody.
- Speaking of unfortunate timing, way to kick Giada De Laurentiis when she’s down, dudes!
- “I just needed help going to sleep… mode.”
- Lots of jerking-off-in-front-of-the-kids moments tonight. It’s a new fad!
- Remember, ladies: “When things are going bad, there’s nothing like an Old Fashioned to ease his stress.”
- That’s it for The A.V. Club’s little-loved, barely tolerated reviews of South Park for 2010. Because you keep clicking the link anyway, we’ll see you next year.