South Park opens its 25th season with a tired COVID joke

The show has satirized the pandemic much more successfully in the recent past

South Park opens its 25th season with a tired COVID joke
South Park Screenshot: Comedy Central

Since its 20th season wrapped up, South Park has leaned into the idea of a reset on more than one occasion. There was Season 21, which promised to return to the show’s “old-school” style of shorter-form storytelling. And then less than two months ago, the second of the series’ two films (so far) on Paramount+ saw the boys traveling back in time for a redo of their disastrous response to the pandemic.

This gimmick of starting over has worked for South Park time and time again, mainly because its two creators have been there for its entire duration and understand the show’s past. When ManBearPig made his triumphant return, it wasn’t about fan service as much as Trey Parker and Matt Stone reckoning with being on the wrong side of history. When they officially retired Mr. Garrison as a surrogate for Donald Trump, it was because they knew that the gag wasn’t working, and probably never had been from the beginning.

For the first third or so of the season 25 premiere, “Pajama Day,” it appears that we’re in for yet another reset. When the titular school activity gets canceled after the children won’t help Garrison cover up his infidelity with two different men, it feels as old-school as you can get on South Park. Cartman’s line “We keep not doing anything wrong and we keep getting fucked” could be straight out of season one. Hell, it could be a thesis for season one, especially when it comes to the contentious dynamic between Garrison and his class.

Naturally, the kids revolt and the Pajama Day controversy spills over into the entire town, with the adults dividing into those who stand in solidarity by sporting pajamas of their own and those who don’t. For a while, Parker and Stone mine some refreshingly silly humor by showing the grown-ups say baby-speak words like “jam-jams” with a straight face. There are some nice visual gags, too, such as (nearly) the entire police force conducting serious business in their PJs.

But about halfway through, it becomes clear that the pajamas are a stand-in for masks during COVID-19—a joke that immediately deflates. And it’s not because South Park has nothing to say about the pandemic. On the contrary, the show’s run of COVID specials and films comprises some of its strongest recent material. Even if it’s hard to see where it could have gone due to its game-changing ending, I would have more than welcomed a continuation of Post COVID: The Return Of COVID.

But instead, we get a metaphor, and that’s the Achilles heel of “Pajama Day.” It feels uninspired and just plain odd to see South Park symbolizing pandemic hysteria when the show tackled it in a much more literal fashion less than two months ago. Although the COVID episodes and movies had a more epic scope than just lampooning the mask debate, the masks themselves were still a significant source of humor (even during the airing of “Pajama Day,” a South Park ad featuring one of the “chin diaper” moments popped up). It’s painfully familiar territory for a season premiere of what still remains one of the most original shows on television.

There’s also the issue of the joke not being taken especially far. Sure, it’s mildly amusing to see the self-righteousness of both sides (another throwback move), as well as the anti-pajama citizens falling into the trope of comparing their rivals to Nazis. At the same time, the bit never reaches the outlandish heights we’ve come to expect from South Park when the Third Reich is involved. The most we get is a brief segment of the Gestapo outside of South Park Elementary, but it’s over before the joke can really land.

Just one scene later, the entire conflict resolves itself with an overly convenient plot device that feels just as undercooked as the pandemic satire. There’s no true chaos, no catharsis, no button on which to end the episode. It’s as if “Pajama Day” is caught between two eras of the show, but ends up playing to the strengths of neither. Regardless of what year an episode of South Park is from, the best ones have always had more than a touch of true anarchy—not to mention a newer angle on current events.

Stray Observations

  • Hi! Welcome to another season of South Park. While I reviewed one of the specials and the two films for The A.V. Club, this is my first time on the show’s regular beat since 2017.
  • I assumed that the “Pajama Time” song was something whipped up by Parker and Stone, but it turns out it’s a very real, very popular kids’ song. Was anyone familiar with it before tonight?
  • There was something so comically mundane and half-assed about Mr. Garrison’s attempts to placate each of his boyfriends. It reminded me that he’s still a great villain even when he’s not running the country into the ground.
  • If nothing else, at least Parker and Stone gave us another brilliant Matt Damon joke.
  • “Comfy-womfy, cozy-wozy—the point is that we are getting fucked.”

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