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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Heavy-handedness about smartphones mars an otherwise enjoyable South Park

Illustration for article titled Heavy-handedness about smartphones mars an otherwise enjoyable South Park
Image: Comedy Central
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In the past few seasons, South Park has had quite a bit of fun mocking the smartphone age. Last year’s hilarious “Put It Down” skewered both President Trump’s Twitter use, as well as the most egregious examples of texting and driving, while just a few episodes ago, “The Scoots” gave us a world where Halloween night is taken over by scooters than can only be accessed from smartphones. With “Buddha Box,” however, Trey and Matt go in harder than ever before on how people’s behavior is negatively effected by the excessive time they spend on their phones. As usual, they get in some good jokes, and have a worthwhile point, but this time around, they were a bit too heavy handed for their own good.


The plot begins with Cartman complaining to his psychiatrist that he’s tired of how “everyone sucks so much these days,” which more or less amounts to them bugging him with real-world concerns while he’s on his phone. The doctor diagnoses him with anxiety, which he defines as “an excuse to be lazy and lame to everyone around you.” Whoo boy, I’m guessing some people will be pissed about this one. To be honest, as someone who does face very intense anxiety at times, I wasn’t particularly bothered, partly because, well, it is South Park. Expecting them to be sensitive about things like this has long been a losing man’s game. More importantly, though, I would argue that the show is about half-right. When Kyle snaps at Cartman for using anxiety as an excuse one too many times, he points out that everyone has anxiety, and working through it is just a part of normal life, which is a perfectly fair point. That being said, “Buddha Box” might have worked better if it had dug just a bit deeper.

Let’s consider one of my favorite Cartman episodes, season 11's “Le Petit Tourette.” Cartman realizes that faking Tourette’s Syndrome is a “golden ticket” because everyone just has to go along with it. In that episode, we see Cartman contrasted with people who actually have Tourette’s, but here, we just see the entire town gradually use anxiety as an excuse along with him, putting the “Buddha Box” (a literal brown box that projects your phone’s screen onto your brain) on to avoid contact with the outside world. Cartman isn’t any better or worse than anyone else, he just thinks of the idea first. Even if the show has a point about how anxiety can be used an excuse for bad behavior, it would have been more interesting if they had put Cartman’s selfishness up against a true case of severe anxiety. They wouldn’t have had to look hard, because Tweek is right there. Anxiety is his primary personality trait! It’s right in his name! Tweek calling Cartman out for faking would have felt natural, and set up a great conflict. Instead, he has to suffer quietly when Cartman introduces Craig to the Buddha Box. If there’s one person in town who has a credible claim to anxiety, it’s Tweek. Here’s to hoping the final two episodes feature him taking Cartman and the rest of the town to task for their collective laziness and dishonesty.

While the main plot had mixed results, the return of the PC Principal/Strong Woman plot was quite encouraging, and featured some of the show’s funniest moments. First off, the “PC Babies” song was quite enjoyable, nearly as much as the “Colorado Farm” song from “Tegridy Farms.” More importantly, though, it was nice to see the show return to this thread, and finally move it in an intriguing direction. When PC and Strong (gotta love typing their names like that) are fighting/distracted by their Buddha Boxes, the babies break out, and go on a string of increasingly absurd adventures. They shame a guy in a bar for saying he ordered a “pussy” drink, then get a construction site shut down (the school being built wasn’t planning to focus on racial issues enough). Finally, they record a smash hit about the scourge of white people having dreadlocks. No one quite explains how they get around from one place to another, or how a record company exec decides it would be a good idea for them to record a song, but it doesn’t really need to make sense, because the absurdity is just so much fun.

The babies are united with their parents, who realize that their Buddha Boxes were the reason why they nearly lost their children. They plead with the town to use them as little as possible, but of course, everyone is too distracted to notice. A little on the nose, but it sets up a nice ending where the pair and their children are actually comfortable going out in public, with no one wanting to look away from their phone long enough to ask any questions. After all they’d been through, it was nice to see them get a break.

“Buddha Box” was an enjoyable enough episode that laid its message on a little too thick. Once the box is introduced, it’s not hard to figure out where things are going, and when PC Principal speaks to an audience full of people wearing them, it’s too predictable to be climactic. Smartphones are bad, we get it. That being said, the wackiness of the PC Babies subplot, as well as the general absurdity of Cartman wearing the box in such settings as a waterpark and a soccer game (why even bother showing up?) were enough to push this one into the positive column for me. With two episodes left to go, ManBearPig is gone, and smartphone addiction has replaced him as the town’s number one threat. There’s potential for a great climax, as long as Trey and Matt are thoughtful enough to properly use the tools at their disposal. (Seriously guys, do something bigger with Tweek here!)


Stray Observations

  • I’m guessing Cartman-as-Buddha will be back for the last two episodes. I won’t lie; I did chuckle at the idea that “namaste” means “fuck you, I have anxiety.”
  • Pi Pi’s Waterpark makes a return. If nothing else, maybe it’s a good thing that Cartman is too busy with his phone to complain about all the minorities?
  • How long did the soccer game go on before the rest of the team noticed that Cartman was playing goalie with a box over his head?