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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

South Park revisits the Catholic Church's scandals in an especially dark outing

Illustration for article titled South Park revisits the Catholic Church's scandals in an especially dark outing
Image: Comedy Central

In 2002, South Park was gradually growing into its role as a show that could adroitly comment on the news of the day, rather than just an outlet for us to laugh at the notion of children saying curse words. The previous year, “Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants” was the quickest response to 9/11, and for all of its ridiculousness, likely played a role in helping people cope with their grief after the attack. The following year, the scandal of child molestation within the Catholic Church had became a major story, and South Park responded with “Red Hot Catholic Love,” and an episode that reveled in its irreverence, and presented Priest Maxi as the lone fighter against priests abusing boys, while also theorizing on...umm..a new way to ingest food in the subplot. At the time, it seemed like a one-off (though quite a good one); a quick take on an issue-of-the-moment that wouldn’t need to be revisited. But 16 years later, the abuse scandal has resurfaced, and South Park has returned to the topic, producing an episode that might be even darker than last week’s.


Throughout the series run, Butters’ naivete has been played for laughs. He doesn’t realize that his mother is trying to kill him, or that Cartman is lying about the world being over, or that Cartman is lying about being a robot, or that Cartman isn’t really....well, you get the idea. Here, though, his innocence is actually well-placed. As abuse of children has re-entered the news, the citizens of South Park go to church for no other reason than to make jokes about priests abusing children. This would seem like another bit of self-commentary, with the perpetually gigglish town standing in for Trey and Matt themselves. At any rate, it bothers Butters, as he sees Maxi struggling to accept the situation, and offers a helping hand.

In this case, he is—at least for the most part—correct in his assumptions. Maxi has no intention of harming Butters, but it looks bad for obvious reasons, and the church brings in The Cleaning Crew (a group of disingenuous bishops and cardinals) to address the situation. At this point, South Park decides to get as gross as possible, with mixed results. I’m torn between thinking the whole exercise was just an excuse for them to say the word “cum” as much as possible (like we didn’t already have that with “Sarcastaball”), but there was enough genuine righteous anger to make it work. When Maxi tells Butters that he thought he was “one of the good apples,” we understand that The Cleaning Crew is meant not only to critique the church’s covering up of sexual abuse, but also the covering up and defending of police killings. They don’t lay the point on too thick, with the “bad apples” line being enough for us to know exactly what they were saying, as they trust the audience to get the point.

Just at the moment where we we’re wondering exactly how to feel about Maxi, he gets his redemption in one of the most stunning, satisfying moments we’ve seen since Wendy beat up Cartman in “The Breast Cancer Show Ever.” When The Cleaning Crew tells Maxi that everything has been taken care of, and he’s been relocated to a new church in a tropical paradise that knows nothing about the scandal, he’s initially confused. They think he molested children, but they have no interest other than offering him a way out. This could well be Trey and Matt’s way of reacting to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, as the people in charge are more interested in protecting a potential abuser than having him answer for his crimes. Rather than attempt to prove his innocence, he grabs *ahem* the Kumboni, and kills the three of them instantly. As Maxi alludes to, his attempts to fix the situation in “Red Hot Catholic Love” fell short. Now, rather that re-engage with the bureaucracy of trying to change The Holy Document Of Vatican Law, he takes things onto his own hands, and kills the bastards on sight. It’s hard to know exactly how much the show wants us to sympathize with Maxi, and how much it wants us to judge him for not doing more, but at this moment, he’s the clear hero, and it was massively cathartic to watch.

Maxi is rewarded with his efforts by facing yet another barrage of pedophile jokes at church the next day. This makes sense; for all his efforts, it won’t be enough to make people change their perception of the Catholic Church, and for the time being, he still has to hear about it. Based on his speech to Butters, he likely understands that he deserves it, because even though he was the hero in the end, he likely could have done something sooner, and his belief in proper channels ultimately failed him. This episode isn’t an all-time classic like “Red Hot Catholic Love,” but much like last week’s episode, it handled a dark, difficult topic with the appropriate mix of irreverence and empathy. Trey and Matt are clearly embracing their role as social commentators, and so far, the results have been thoroughly rewarding.

Stray Observations:

  • There was no mention of the events of “Dead Kids” in this week’s episode. Are they abandoning the serial storyline, or are they simply opening things up a bit? Perhaps this will be a bit like season 18, where the episodes initially seemed separate, but gradually revealed themselves to be part of a larger thread.
  • “Red Hot Catholic Love” had a fairly open-ended ending, but this episode forced Maxi to address his ultimate failure to remedy the situation. This would have seemed unnecessary if not for the fact that little has changed over the past 16 years.
  • So…was Kyle the one who invited Butters to Board Game Night? Wasn’t quite clear on that.
  • After last week, Sharon Marsh plays along with everyone else in making jokes in church. I thought perhaps they’d continue last week’s theme with her being the only one not numb to the problem. But I guess she just accepts it? Or, is her indifference here directly related to her giving up at the end of last week’s episode? I’m just really curious to see what they’re building to here. And what’s with the #CancelSouthPark stuff?