South Park: “Faith Hilling”
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South Park: “Faith Hilling”

Approximately halfway through tonight’s South Park, “Taylor Swifting” was trending on Twitter. The irony of that is pretty damn staggering. Tonight’s episode, “Faith Hilling,” was a slam on the ever-fleeting nature of memes in today’s society. To paraphrase Andy Warhol: In the future, everyone will be trending for 15 minutes. What was pitched to entertainment outlets as a “Fun with Audio” slam of the incessant Republican presidential debates turned out to be another attack on a fairly innocuous topic. “Reverse Cowgirl” had a bit more on its mind than either “Cash for Gold” or tonight’s installment. But nothing about this particular season has seemed particularly topical, biting, or incisive.

None of that would matter much if the episode itself were funny. “Faith Hilling” definitely had some laughs, but they were sporadically deployed throughout the half-hour. The idea of a world full of people trying to increasingly out-meme each other has potential, and it was amusing to see the “outdated” film strip at school warning of the dangers of memeing dating all the way back to… 2010. Let’s put aside the fact that Tebowing didn’t exist even then and focus on the real point: We’re living in a world that has more cultural turnover than ever, thanks to an increasingly diminished attention span. Future generations will know us as the assholes that mocked each other for having cellphones that delivered information that was “so 23 seconds ago.”

There’s an actual interesting story buried in tonight’s episode about the fear of being left behind, but it gets the short shrift. Time spent continually returning to news updates (or “reporting”) about the shift from Faith Hilling to Taylor Swifting to Oh Lord Johnsoning could have been better served to further detail the desperation of Kyle and Cartman to keep hold of their beloved tradition. As amusing as it was to hear Nazi salutes categorized as “ass wedging,” I wouldn’t have minded more of the episode’s Ionesco-esque look at the way people blindly conform to the newest trends in culture and politics. I’m as big as fan as any of cats with bread stuck around their face, but I was really interested in the way one person’s passion serves as fuel for another person’s derision.

Of course, none of these desired topics are funny, even if they are more potent than a series of train-induced deaths. (Seriously, that thing was the fucking Christine of mass transportation.) But it would have at least let the episode be about something, rather than be a series of semi-related bits that never really coalesced. While I shuddered to think about the comments of a South Park episode built entirely around re-appropriating real quotes from Rick Santorum, at least that could have provided more fodder for actual analysis. I could tell you that my wife laughed harder with each iteration of that internet cat saying “Oh Long Johnson,” but I’m not sure that’s exactly insightful analysis so much as overly personal journalism. Plus, that doesn't say as much about her love of the episode, but rather her apparent love of talking cat clips on YouTube.

When The Denver Post declared Faith Hilling “so 2000 late,” I half-expected the show to go the conspiracy route, with the kids learning Newt Gingrinch was using his platform to control memes to help him win the nomination. That wouldn’t have been as cutting a topic as the one explored in “Mystery of the Urinal Deuce,” but at least it would have given the episode a much-needed focus. Instead, most of the gags worked as intermittently as Butters’ appearances after being forced to put a loaded .38 in his mouth as a metaphor for the dangers of memeing. Half of the cutbacks to him alone in the classroom worked, and half of them didn’t.

That repetitious, hit-or-miss nature somewhat mirrors the memes at the heart of the episode. I’d never seen that speaking cat before, so I went on a ride from “What the fuck is that cat saying?” to “Oh, huh, I get it,” to “Holy fuck, this is the funniest thing since Arrested Development!” to “Hmmm, OK, ready to move on now.” Ending the episode with a parody of NBC’s Sunday Night Football theme (itself essentially a parody of a decent Joan Jett song) might have brought Faith Hilling back to the reality of South Park, but certainly isn’t anything remotely like the social satire that makes this show stand out in the television landscape. Cartman may think it represents a pure desire to hang onto one’s beliefs. But I’m guessing that if I went back to Twitter right now, “Taylor Swifting” would no longer be trending. It would exist in the ether amidst all barely-remembered pop culture moments, a space I imagine tonight’s episode itself will soon occupy. That’s not the worst crime in the world. But after last fall’s strong run, I’m still waiting for a truly memorable South Park episode in this calendar year.

Stray observations:

  • Saturday Night Live did a version of the rapidly expanding (and increasingly ridiculous) meme trend when Emma Stone hosted in the Fall of 2010.
  • Of all the memes, “Bradying” cut this Boston-based writer the most.
  • We do not yet have Flying Cell Phone Scooters, but I’m sure there will be an app for that soon enough.
  • That Planned Parenthood doctor got in quite the slam on Kyle and Cartman, although now I’m imagining a version of Back To The Future that is all about Marty McFly’s parents actually deciding to stay abstinent.
  • “You are taking the idea of Faith Hilling and making it stupid. Bad kitty! Bad Mr. Kitty!” When in doubt, blame your cats for making your favorite activities seem worthless.

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