Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In the dawn of the Trump era, the satire on South Park writes itself

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Although Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem as worried as the rest of us about Donald Trump being president, his oncoming incumbency at least makes their jobs a little bit easier. As “Members Only” proves, the satire writes itself. Parker and Stone didn’t have to imagine Mr. Garrison/Trump getting ushered around the Pentagon, receiving top military secrets, resources, and weapons in an extremely brief period of time. That event actually happened.

This shrouds the entire scene in a cold wave of heartbreak. At first, it’s amusing to watch Garrison plot how he’s going to use the new intel for personal gain and revenge (“So I can do whatever the fuck I want in here, right?”). But then one remembers (or ‘members) that Donald Trump did get briefed on the nation’s “deep secrets” this past week. He will have access to the nuclear codes in a little over two months. South Park doesn’t even have to try. They merely have to state what’s going on right now in Washington, D.C., albeit with a slightly blunter and more vulgar touch. No, Donald Trump’s not taunting those who have wronged him with questions about what to do with his “dry dick” (as far as we know, anyway). But he is already using his new office as a means of score-settling. And if South Park history has taught us anything, spiteful retribution is something that’s always appealed to Mr. Garrison, even in his best moments. It makes sense that, for all his worrying about the implications of his presidency a few episodes ago, he’d come to love the unchecked power in time, despite loathing the constant responsibility.

Outside of the dry-dick business, the most over-the-top bit in “Members Only” fittingly tips its hat to Star Wars, specifically Darth Vader’s meditation chamber in The Empire Strikes Back. In the opening scene, Caitlin Jenner takes on the Admiral Piett role as she walks in on her boss (Garrison as Trump as Vader) getting his new hair (Trump’s combover as Vader’s helmet) lowered onto his head. Then again, is it really even all that exaggerated of a sequence? Garrison only receives his makeover to look more like the actual Donald Trump than before. He’s devolving from a stand-in for the president-elect to the real deal, once again driving home that, in 2016, the truth really is stranger than fiction.

The constant Vader allusions do have the potential to fail. After all, comparing a frightening leader to perhaps the most famous cinematic villain of all time has been done to death in pop culture. But like everything involving Star Wars, South Park pulls it off because of the specificity. Piett’s meditation-chamber discovery isn’t exactly the most famous moment in the original trilogy, and mixing “Hail To The Chief” with “Imperial March” makes for a clever—if terrifying—audiovisual gag. The Member Berries would be proud.

If only they weren’t so busy living it up at the White House. Back in “Fort Collins,” South Park teased at just how funny the berries are when left to their own devices, and “Members Only” delivers even more on that front, from a speakeasy where the older, gangster-esque berries hang out (nostalgic for the ‘40s instead of the ‘80s) to the core berries performing a cover of Toto’s “Africa.” While their reigniting of the Cold War will likely be the more prominent plot point, the comedic gold lies in the concert sequence—the globular fruits dopily swaying back and forth as they mimic Bobby Kimball’s falsetto.

Even if “Members Only”’s other two story beats don’t have the momentum of Garrison tearing through the Pentagon and the berries storming the White House, they at least make the most of characters staying in one place. Gerald tries his best to do damage control from afar, desperately attempting to fool Kyle, Sheila, and the rest of the world that Skankhunt42 is Ike, not him. The elder Broflovski sinks to lower depths with each episode, and there’s something disturbingly funny about seeing him feed profane comments to his five-year-old son in hopes of keeping his online identity a secret.


The other satellite thread involves Cartman, Heidi, and Butters, all of whom visit Elon Musk’s SpaceX program in hopes of leaving the planet. Here, Butters provides the perfect foil to Cartman by showing a sincere interest in female comedians and admiration for Heidi, adding some much-needed variety to the one-note storyline.

Cartman’s condescension isn’t manipulative or malicious, especially when compared to more hateful past schemes in episodes like “The Passion Of The Jew.” In his mind, he really is trying to be a better person. But his change is still majorly misguided, however unknowingly—more attached the idea of personal betterment and the superiority that accompanies it rather than actual self-improvement. Does Cartman secretly hate Heidi and her jokes? No. But he’s smart enough to recognize the difference between him and Butters, who genuinely appreciates Heidi’s personality without resorting to pandering compliments. Cartman’s quick to realize how much that threatens to expose his own trendy progressivism. It’s likely to lead to a more explosive blowup in the next two episodes that coaxes the old Cartman out of hiding.


Cartman’s perception of his own metamorphosis also ties to his fantasies of interstellar escapism. Like many Americans, he wants progress and personal change to be easy. He wants to be nicer to women and suddenly be recognized as a beacon of humanity. He wants to visit SpaceX and be given a free trip to Mars so he can escape all the widespread problems on Earth.

But as Musk explains, it doesn’t work like that. The technology won’t be ready for another 10 years (maybe longer), and even if it was, true change arises from people doggedly working together over long periods of time. There isn’t a one-fix solution for these kinds of things. Whether Musk can eventually bring human civilization to Mars or not, he, Cartman, Heidi, Butters, and the rest of their world (not to mention us folks in real life) are stuck with a Trump/Garrison presidency for the next four years, and all the ugliness that comes with it. If nothing else, maybe it will inspire unity and actual progress among the people who oppose it. And it will definitely result in some great—if very, very dark—episodes of South Park in the future. At least we have that.


Stray observations

  • Alright, to be fair, maybe the military sequence is a bit of a stretch. It’s not like Trump has actually bothered to be in touch with the Pentagon. No big, right?
  • Mr. Garrison points out that PC Principal is just as responsible for putting him into power as anyone who actually agreed with Garrison’s agenda. He’s right. It’s a brief moment, but it stings nonetheless, especially for a liberal like myself who once viewed Trump more as a joke than a legitimate threat. So many of us who voted against him are guilty of this kind of hubris.
  • It’s a true sign of the times when South Park is skewering a president this explicitly, and over such a long period of time. During the second Bush administration, Parker and Stone made a point of not satirizing George W. too heavily (that’s what That’s My Bush! was for, and even that was more of a riff on sitcom tropes), believing it to be low-hanging fruit. My, how things have changed with our politicians, and not for the better.
  • I can’t ‘member when South Park last had a celebrity voice themselves, but it feels like it’s been a long time. The episode acknowledges the brilliance of Musk’s vision, all while still poking fun at him with the malfunctioning door, which is a nice moment of humility.
  • I want to see the berries’ two cars race against one another.
  • Were the older berries supposed to look like anyone specific—some real-life or fictional gangsters or politicians, perhaps?
  • “And here of course is the famous football, where you can order a nuclear attack in four minutes.”
  • “’Member cutting open tauntaun?”