It’s been a long stretch—nearly 11 months—since the last episode of South Park, and during that time, there’s been plenty of grist for the mill. The time has also given Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and the rest of the writers a chance to take a break, take a breath, and come out swinging. In a way, they pick up where they left off with “Obama Wins!” by taking the political route and taking on the Edward Snowden/NSA scandal. The show can be hit and miss with political topics, so it's disappointing, though not surprising, that even with that time off, this episode still falls in that “miss” category.
It doesn’t take long for the episode’s first big point—mocking the way we rail against invasion of privacy while simultaneously volunteering all sorts of personal information—to get hammered home, what with Cartman’s rally organization to protest the government. The question from there is whether or not the show can carry the point home without getting too lost along the way. It can’t: Instead of sharp satire, we get a limp A-story that wanders a bit with stale riffs and a lackadaisical payoff and a B-story that doesn’t evolve and, in both cases, plenty of wasted opportunity. The idea of what we consider to be our privacy and how we undermine it seems to be the theme the show would usually latch on to and mock everyone—especially us, the viewers, for—but that idea is dispatched after the first bit.
There are some clever moments, such as the “Shitter” feed, Alec Baldwin, and the way the show mocks us for complaining about the NSA spying on us when the stuff we’re worried about is mostly pictures of our dogs, what we’re eating, or, if you’re Alec Baldwin, pussy sandwiches. But the jokes are just that, clever bits that also prove to be too ephemeral (you know, like Twitter!). I had to Google Baldwin’s homophobic Twitter rant just to refresh my memory, which isn’t a good sign: If gags are old enough to be forgotten, how fresh can the joke be? (Of course, maybe my memory is just that bad, but the show could have gone more recent.)
Cartman’s journey into the NSA disguised as an employee has promise, but the big reveal of the NSA’s secret weapon is one of those South Park left-turns I’ve talked about before. Except this one doesn’t work. Instead of reaching for some sort of sharp satire, there’s a settling for an easy, cheap joke. There’s no barb to the “Sure, they’re torturing Santa, but they’re keeping us safe” line; there’s no bite, no oomph that the show is capable of.
Turning the DMV into church for Butters is kind of clever for a B-plot but is pretty empty, a one-note joke that doesn’t go anywhere, kind of like the racist caricatures of the Jehovah Witnesses. I’m not entirely sure what the point was: Butters is dumb? DMVs suck? Taking a shot at the Catholic Church? It seemed like it wanted to tie back to the main storyline, but other than Cartman showing up at the end, it didn’t.
I’m not going to panic about this middling season premiere; as my recaps from last season showed, I still have a lot of faith and find a lot of enjoyment in the show. And maybe my expectations are too high for the show. It’s in its 17th season and seemingly saddled with that weird sort of Simpsons-esque legacy of surviving long enough to outlive its initial legacy of a ground-breaking show. Not every show has to be some sort of searing public commentary; dumb jokes are just fine, thanks. But even with that expectation and the extended time off, it feels like the rust shows.
- Kyle’s rant that opens the show could be mine or any other person on my morning train with this one person who always does that…
- I would totally go see a puppet show version of 1984
- There’s something inherently sweet—if a little predictable—in Butters’ prayer to Obama.
- Nice to hear Bill Hader on the show as Alec Baldwin. I know he's working on the show as a writer, but IMDB tells me this is only his second time as a voice talent on the show.
- I honestly don't remember Baldwin's, rant but I work for a big news outlet in Chicago as part of my full-time job, and with that terrific 24/7 news cycle, I'm not surprised stuff like that got pushed out of my mind so easily.
- The Jehovah’s Witness cartoon made me think of these old Jack Chick cartoons my next door neighbor passed out at Halloween. I was terrified of those—I grew up in Alabama so mission accomplished, Jack—but was also strangely drawn to the devilish behavior depicted within.
- Did the NSA boss guy remind anyone else of Alias’ Arvin Sloane? Loved his rant at the Twitter user, though.
- Chief Barbrady cameo! Maybe we’ll see Jimbo and Ned next week?
- I still have high hopes for the rest of this new batch of episodes. Not every episode is going to be a winner, but this one felt like one of the bigger duds in the last few seasons. You will, of course, dear readers, not hesitate to tell me how wrong I am, I hope.