Photo: Comedy Central

There’s a strong case to be made that over the course of South Park’s 22-season run, “ManBearBig” is the most regrettable episode they’ve ever done. Don’t get me wrong; it’s far from the worst in terms of humor (who doesn’t love watching Cartman shit out fake treasure?), but by mocking Al Gore by having him get hysterical about a half-man half-pig half-bear creature that appears to be imaginary, there was the undeniable implication that global warming wasn’t real. Maybe Trey and Matt weren’t intending to say that; maybe they just wanted to make fun of Al Gore (who is admittedly a pretty silly character), and didn’t consider what the episode was saying. At any rate, when people are questioning the degree to which South Park influenced the worst aspects of life in 2018, and with reports that the effects of global warming are about 12 years away from getting severe, that episode sticks out like a sore thumb.

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With “Time To Get Cereal,” the creators acknowledge their mistake, and make a sincere effort to atone for it. When more kids turn up missing, it’s initially assumed to be the result of yet more school shootings (which Sgt. Yates wants to quickly blame on Kenny and Cartman so he can get back to playing Red Dead Redemption 2). When Stan sees MBP maul a kid outside Tegridy Farms, they realize Gore was right all along, and go back to him for help.

Of course, since this is South Park, they still have plenty of fun at Gore’s expense. He’s the ultimate sore winner, forcing the boys to watch clips of his political career during an interminable dinner at Olive Garden. On one hand, this was funny enough, as Parker’s Gore impression is a pretty reliable laugh, but it’s also a little odd because…Al Gore hasn’t actually done much lately. Like, it would be one thing if he actually were doing what amounts to an I-told-you-so tour, but if anything, he’s remained oddly silent these days (admittedly, he does initially appear as a recluse, before the boys drag his identity out of him). The episode wants to admit that Gore was right, while still making fun of him. This isn’t an impossible task; the fact that the effects of global warming are now an undeniably real certainly doesn’t render Gore infallible, but the way they try to have their cake and eat it too was a bit awkward.

The most amusing scene in the episode—and the point where Trey and Matt most thoroughly turn the gun on themselves—comes during a scene in a Red Lobster, where an arrogant man drinking a glass of wine insists that the science behind ManBearPig isn’t entirely sound while MBP rips people to shreds right behind him. This character feels like a stand-in for not just every global warming skeptic, but also for where Trey and Matt stood on the issue 12 years ago. This scene works better than the scenes with Gore because the point of “Time To Get Cereal” seems to be acknowledging that the implications of “ManBearPig” were a mistake, and it does so in no uncertain terms.

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After Gore drags more sycophancy out of the desperate children, he summons Satan (sadly without Saddam), who tells Gore and the kids to visit their local library. Here, they find out ManBearPig is actually a demon who visits Earth to make deals with mankind, with the eventual fallout being far worse than anyone could imagine. Unfortunately, just as they reach this revelation, Yates has tracked them down in the library, and arrests them all, assuming them to be school shooters. He’s too desperate to get back to playing RDR2 to hear any of their pleas, and the rest of the town doesn’t believe them. In the final scene, however, we get a stunning revelation: Grandpa Marsh made the deal with MBP, and he looks on in horror as Stan and his friends are taken to prison. This is the most shocking cliffhanger ending that South Park has done since Gerald was revealed to be the mastermind behind skankhunt42. Marsh’s reasons for making the deal are anyone’s guess, and with four episodes left, and plenty of storylines left to unfold, the suspense going forward has certainly been ratcheted up.

More than anything else, I’m surprised this episode exists. Over the last few seasons, Trey and Matt have looked inward, and considered the notion that some of what they had to say hasn’t aged well, but it’s pretty jarring to see them take a previous episode and say “shit, we fucked up.” The closest comparison I could think of would be Season 18's “Cissies,” which attempted to atone for the sins of “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina.” So, did they do enough? Well, the bits with Gore are a bit frustrating, but this was about as clear of an admission of guilt as you could get, and when you consider that no one was really asking them to make this episode, the fact that they took it upon themselves to do so is an admirable display of responsibility. We’ll be able to get a greater idea of the degree which this episode succeeds or fails when we see how it fits into the rest of the season. For now, though, as a long time South Park who has spent over a decade confronting the dangerous implications of “ManBearPig,” it was enjoyable and cathartic to see Trey and Matt admit they were wrong.

Stray Observations

  • “I’m getting my white ass out of here!” might be my favorite Ned line ever. But also...is Ned dead? I’ll really miss him if he is.
  • “You can’t possibly go back to the snow level!” “WHAT CHOICE DO I HAVE NOW!” This is one of best Yates episodes ever, right up with “The Jeffersons,” and “Butters’ Bottom Bitch.”
  • Any theories about why Grandpa Marsh made the deal with MBP? My immediate theory is it that might something to do with all those emeralds and bolo ties he bought from the Home Shopping Network. Like…that would be such a great call back!
  • Yes, ManBearPig was also real in the “Imaginationland” trilogy, but...only as a figment of Gore’s imagination that comes to life. That’s not quite the same thing. Actually, part of me wonders if that plot point was Trey and Matt’s first attempt to admit they botched the message of “ManBearPig,” and now, 11 years later, they realized they didn’t go far enough.

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