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

South Park: “A Nightmare on Face Time”

Illustration for article titled South Park: “A Nightmare on Face Time”

Look, the very fact that you can read this review on your computer, tablet, or phone probably pisses Randy Marsh off. Then again, maybe he’s only a Luddite when it impacts on his get-rich schemes. “A Nightmare on FaceTime” is basically a re-telling of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation of The Shining, by way of The Avengers, by way of “you kids get off my damn lawn with your streaming video.” There’s nothing particularly deep about the show’s analysis of disconnect between the Age of Blockbuster and today’s plethora of cloud-based entertainment. But it does feature Randy slowly losing his mind, and that in and of itself means it was a pretty entertaining episode.

There’s plenty that can be said about the quantum leap in accessible technology that transformed a multi-billion dollar industry into something that Randy can own for $10,000. But South Park chooses to demonstrate that gap through the persistent sight gag of Stan Marsh having to trick-of-treat via FaceTime. Randy isn’t left behind because he stubbornly holds onto preexisting values that he’s had to maintain in the face of encroaching technology. He’s left behind because he stubbornly maintains that spending his family’s savings on a DOA business model was a wise decision. The fact that someone could be watching Jack Torrance spiral downwards towards insanity on his or her iPhone at the same time Randy is slowly losing his marbles inside the desolate store doesn’t enter into the equation here. Any reference to The Shining starts and ends with itself and has no bearing on modern consumption of media.

That’s fine, but it’s a bit toothless all the same. Once you understand that it’s South Park doing The Shining, the gags stop being about surprise and more about checking off a series of references. Spectres haunting the building? Check. A discussion with the Lloyd the bartender? Check. A creepy jump-cut to Randy freezing in the snow? Check. Still, Randy’s re-enactment of events within the The Overlook Hotel feels as if it springs from a writing staff just inserting moments it enjoyed in the film into the show. By contrast, the best parts of Randy-as-Jack come from the moments in which he breaks out of his stupor, especially around his daughter Shelly. (Pro tip: Randy saying “Shelly” is never not funny, in any circumstance ever.) Randy’s recitation of facts about rural high-speed bandwidth issues feel as if they spring from his fevered self-justification, not from a deleted scene from the Kubrick classic.

With Randy getting his psychopathic owner on, Stan is trapped inside the store on Halloween. This bums Stans out, as he’s dressed up as Captain America to go trick-or-treating with Kyle, Eric, and Kenny (dressed up as Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man, respectively). Hearing Kenny speak as Mysterion is always great, but having him give tactical orders from behind Iron Man’s mask was absolutely fantastic. Running gags about adults’ misunderstanding over Cartman’s get-up were more hit-and-miss. But honestly, this was all about Captain FaceTime Skateboard Guy. It was the gift that kept on giving, with no one in town seemingly able to understand they were talking to a tablet rather than a human being. (I kept waiting for a joke about the realism of the Retina display, but it never came.) It was unclear if The RedBox Killers understood they were cutting glass rather than Stan’s face after “The Avengers” tried to thwart a robbery, but I like that ambiguity.

Again, though, this ambiguity had little to do with the increased blurring of lines between personal contact and virtual interaction. People didn’t misread Stan because South Park had turned into a town that couldn’t distinguish FaceTime from face time. The show simply decided it would be funny if its denizens treated the iPad as it were a human being. That’s a perfectly fine thing to do! Still… there are plenty of people who watch toddlers watching cartoons on smartphones and think they have gone mad. There are also plenty who think chatting online is the same as having a conversation in person. These are big trends on both fronts. To have “Nightmare” touch upon these universal topics and ignore them in favor of more trivial observations is hardly a crime. But it does feel like a missed opportunity. It’s much like the episode’s reference to “Gangnamstein”: It’s funny in the moment, but disappears almost instantly.

There’s one moment, near the end of the installment, in which the Facetime-as-reality blurring works like gangbusters. After a night trick-or-treating and fighting crime, everyone worries that Stan is dying. It turns out that his body is fine, but the battery life of his iPad is almost out. What follows is a perfect bit of comedy in which the very real angst over low battery life turns into a life-or-death situation for all involved. “It’s OK. It’s OK. Hit ‘OK,’” Stan tells Kyle, as both a means of comfort but also a way to call attention to the warning message onscreen. “Will someone get me a goddamn charger?” pleads Kyle, both in the moment as an Avenger but also someone panicked about losing connection to his friend.


If the riffs on Blockbuster’s fading glory felt muted, these smaller character moments still worked well. “Randy Being Randy” is always of my strongest parts of the show at this point. Shelly’s intense disgust and shame at having to stay in an empty store with her family felt true. Articulate Kenny is always a highlight. Sneaking these aspects into “A Nightmare On FaceTime” raised the quality of the lesser material surrounding it. Even if those moments couldn’t completely turn the episode as a whole into a classic, they did help elevate it overall.

Stray observations:

  • I’m sure you will all have favorite movie titles that adorned the shelves of Blockbuster. For some reason, Impact On The City slayed me.
  • I’d watch an entire episode of Butters as a wereprechaun. (It would be much more enjoyable than seeing him pissed at Ben Affleck for thirty minutes.)
  • In Randy’s perfect world, he’d be enjoying a double-feature of RoboCop 2 and the director’s cut of Blade Runner.
  • “Dude, fuck this. Let’s bail!” I know we can’t have Kenny enunciate this well each week. But damnit, I can dream a little.
  • This “Gangnam Style” thing has to be over soon, right? RIGHT?
  • Even the town’s “Monster Mash” gala features streaming horror films.