I have no idea what actually “happened” in “Grounded Vindaloop.” I don’t think I’m supposed to. I mean, I have a vague idea—Stan was the one who got trapped in the Oculus because someone called customer service, but from there, everything gets a lot messier. The whole joke of the episode, particularly the second half, is in the endless “revelation” scenes, parodying a few different things which function as narrative shell games, refusing to play fair with audiences (though Inception and Total Recall, which is explicitly referenced here, spring most clearly to mind). And, like that movie trope, “Grounded Vindaloop” just gets tired after a while.
It says a lot that the best part of the episode is the beginning, when it seems like Cartman is just messing with Butters without any of the weird and impenetrable layers of Oculus. This is a classic setup for a Cartman-Butters episode (I’m thinking particularly of “The Death Of Eric Cartman”), and it’d have been nice to explore in greater depth both what Butters would do with “free reign” in a virtual reality world and the way the gamification of tasks like shoveling snow makes the “Oculus” more attractive to him. The strongest moment of the episode, by far, is the uninterrupted shot of Cartman listening on the walkie-talkie as Butters goes full Grand Theft Auto, because it plays on Cartman’s reaction, our knowledge of both characters, and lets our imaginations fill in all of the horrible things Butters is trying to do.
But from there, we get increasing jokes about customer service and layers of reality that serve to send up endless twists while proving just as sensible and less interesting. The mess in “Grounded Vindaloop” sends the boys through many different theories of what’s happening with the Oculus headsets, a joke that gets run deep into the ground, and stops being funny after a while. The endless chase-type thing has also already been done this year in Rick & Morty’s “M. Night Shaym-Aliens,” which is much faster paced and madcap. And a lot of the jokes from the end of the episode are about Steve the customer service guy, who is I guess funny if you have a pretty offensive view of people who work in customer service? Otherwise, don’t need it.
In retrospect, the dashed-off nature of this episode, particularly in a season that’s felt relatively strong, can be tied to the conclusion. Basically, the entire episode is working backward from its ending image—the boys, in real, live action, emerging from the Oculus to complain about how shitty the graphics are. This is funny enough, in a meta sort of way, but it’s hard to forget that this is also the conclusion of “Homer3” from way back, and just not that exciting joke territory in 2014. It’s good for a cheap laugh, but if that’s the gimmick moment half an hour of “Grounded Vindaloop” is building toward, I’m going to need a little more. Parker and Stone’s customer service could be a bit better.