Photo: Comedy Central

Before we begin, let’s get this out of the way: I promise not to make every South Park review about whether or not Trey Parker and Matt Stone bring up Donald Trump. But it’s worth mentioning again tonight because 1) It’s only the second episode of the 21st season and 2) It’s the first time this year he’s been directly referenced. Although, to Parker and Stone’s credit, they never actually drop the T-word, instead just referring to him as “the president.” But their depiction of him—both in Twitter vocabulary and avatar—is the closest they’ve gotten to portraying the real deal.

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That’s largely because Tweek serves as an audience surrogate, embodying anyone who gets freaked out on a daily basis by the president’s real-life reckless behavior on social media. Has there been a more accurate summation of our national panic over our country’s tensions with North Korea than that talent-show sequence? Tweek approaches a piano, sits down, and pounds out the following types of phrases over discordant notes: “WHY ARE YOU ALL JUST SITTING THERE? NORTH KOREA IS GOING TO BOMB US! WE’RE ALL DEAD! WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING! DO SOMETHING!” Truer words, Tweek. Truer words indeed.

To make matters worse, the president himself steps in and escalates the situation every time Tweek does try to do something about it. When he sends cupcakes directly to Kim Jong Un to smooth over relations between the two countries, Trump ruins it by falsely associating the young boy with his own racism in his tweets. Tweek soon becomes a one-man analogy for Japan, horrified as the Koreans fire warning missiles over his home.

Tweek’s feverish worrying starts to put a strain on his relationship with Craig, once again capturing a plight experienced daily by many Americans. How many of us have been chastised by a friend or romantic partner for allowing the Trump administration to numb us into inaction day in and day out? How many of us have a harder time just enjoying our daily lives because we’re always worrying about the news, even when we know we shouldn’t? As Craig points out, it’s unlikely that North Korea will ever start a war they know they can’t win. In his eyes, Tweek is losing his shit over nothing.

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It’s here that Parker and Stone show a gentler side than they usually do on South Park. In previous seasons, they probably would have sided with Craig’s demands for Tweek to stop being so emotional. They would have sided with his level-headed gestures—the fidget spinners, ferris wheel rides, and other tactics designed to calm Tweek down. They would have erred on the side of rationality.

But these aren’t exactly rational times, are they? South Park’s creators have acknowledged time and again in recent interviews how Trump coverage seems to permeate just about everything in the world right now, including this very site. Tweek knows he shouldn’t be obsessing over the news, but he can’t help himself. Likewise, Parker and Stone have vowed not to take on Trump this season, but so far, they haven’t been able to help themselves either. So what’s the solution?

As Craig eventually realizes, it’s simply a matter of allowing Tweek to worry. It’s simply a matter of listening to his boyfriend. It’s simply a matter of being empathetic—something we so often forget to do when it comes to loved ones who are stressed out. But Craig does it, and lo and behold, it works. “Thanks, Craig,” Tweek tells him. It’s one of the only times we’ve ever seen the overly caffeinated little guy be still and resolved on the show.

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While that kind of understated tenderness is rare on South Park, it connects to a subplot that’s more in line with the series’ usual drawn-out violence and exaggeration. When many of the town’s motorists start mowing down kids because they, too, are distracted by the news on their phones, Cartman gets jealous of all the students at school grieving over their dead friends.

That’s because, after a tape gets leaked of him begging Heidi to stay with him or he’ll commit suicide, he tries to turn it around and elicit sympathy for his hurt feelings. In typical Cartman fashion, he takes his ploy to a morally reprehensible conclusion, misappropriating Logic’s suicide-prevention anthem, “1-800-273-8255,” and making it about his own death. “I’m drowning in sorrow / Gonna kill myself / Probably around 2:30 tomorrow,” he raps in a brilliant parody of Logic’s VMA performance.

It ends up being Heidi’s plea for Cartman to actually listen to those around him that inspires Craig to make the right move with Tweek. And since that resolution is so emotionally honest, it feels a little anticlimactic when Tweek then turns his energy toward convincing people to put down their phones so all the vehicular manslaughter can stop. “Don’t be a president,” he and the rest of the town say in a musical PSA that also functions as another dig at Trump.

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Even if the warning against obsessing over the news pales in comparison to the episode’s more quietly powerful moment between Tweek and Craig, it’s still good advice. But will anyone in the real world actually do it? Hell, will Parker and Stone actually do it? Probably not. And after an episode more focused, poignant, and yes, Trump-centric than last week’s sloppy premiere, I’m not sure I want them to.

Stray observations

  • Readers’ poll: Do you all think the Twitter account was supposed to belong to the actual Donald Trump or Mr. Garrison as Trump? The latter option would make more sense within the show’s story, but it was strange that the avatar didn’t have glasses. Or maybe Garrison losing the lenses is just another part of his gradual transformation. Either way works for me. Part of me loves the idea of Parker and Stone just saying “fuck it” and making it the real Donald Trump with no explanation as to why.
  • Adding Kenny’s cherubic portrait to the images of all the dead kids without actually showing his death was a nice touch.
  • I continue to love the casualness of Tweek and Craig’s relationship, as well as the other boys’ acceptance of it.
  • Were the children’s slow-motion death scenes a specific parody of anything? The violence reminded me of early John Woo, but I feel like it’s riffing on a very specific film or TV show.
  • All the hit-and-runs seemed like a missed opportunity for another “Buckle up, buckaroo.”
  • Parker and Stone came so close to creating a spiritual successor to their Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police with Kim Jong Un. I wonder if they’ll give him lines and more of an identity in future episodes, though maybe now isn’t the smartest time to do that.
  • I have to wonder...has anyone tried sending Kim Jong Un cupcakes?
  • “So you’re just gonna email with every guy who has a dick and a death wish?”

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