Since South Park first introduced the character of PC Principal, and began generally grappling with the concept of modern social justice culture (i.e. Tumblr activists, the word “problematic,” checking your privilege, etc.) back in 2015, it’s often felt like they aren’t quite sure how they feel about it. They’ll make the argument that the PC crowd is going way too far and getting much too angry in one scene, then argue that they’re being completely reasonable the next. Admittedly, this is understandable when we figure that the movement can be commendable in some cases, and regrettable in others (say, the Justine Sacco mob, or #CancelColbert), but at some point, shouldn’t they take some stand on whether the concept they’re dealing with is good or bad in the larger, macro sense? They’ve waffled on that front constantly, and that was particularly frustrating with “The Probem With A Poo,” an episode that has no idea what its moral is.
We begin with the return of Mr. Hankey, possibly the most loved and hated character in the entire show. His budget for the Christmas pageant is cut in half, and he’s forced to have the school band play the show rather than the symphony. When the kids aren’t up to his standards, he trashes them on Twitter, then blames it on Ambien, recalling Roseanne Barr’s baffling excuse for racist tweets this summer. His tirades keep getting worse, to the point where Kyle — always his best friend — is the only one still willing to defend him. This doesn’t go well for Kyle, as he’s seen as the only being willing to “defend shit,” with Cartman saying “see how that goes for in 2018,” just to really lay it on. Kyle is essentially a surrogate for Norm MacDonald here, who was criticized for defending both Roseanne and Louis CK. Kyle is fairly sympathetic, as everything he does is a genuine attempt to help a friend and not an endorsement of Mr. Hankey’s bad behavior.
The show tries way too hard to cram in as many references to current events as possible here. Simply having him be a surrogate for Louis and Roseanne would be enough, but the episode also has him as a stand-in for Brett Kavanaugh in a disappointingly weak take on the confirmation hearings. Then, as the title of the episode hints, they reference Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem With Apu, when, after one last offensive tirade leads to him being exiled from South Park, he ends up in Springfield, where racism is still tolerated, with the #cancelsouthpark hashtag that had been showing up the last two weeks now reading #cancelthesimpsons. If nothing else, it’s far more clever than the pathetic response the actual Simpsons had the controversy. This worked better than the Kavanaugh bit for sure, but they still shot their wad by framing the story through every current story they could possibly think of.
What really derails this episode, however, is that we’re never supposed to know exactly how we’re supposed to feel about what’s going on here. On one hand, Mr. Hankey’s tweets are portrayed as legitimately offensive, and causing genuine harm, but at the same time, the townspeople shunning him are all portrayed as being just a little too judge-y, and too willing to turn their back on someone who brought them joy in the past. When Hankey is exiled, a newscaster sarcastically comments that they should “give themselves a little pat on the back” for being woke enough to kick him out. Hankey doesn’t have a single redemptive moment in the entire episode, and yet, there’s a still an undercurrent to the tone telling us we should be forgiving. Basically, it’s South Park just saying “hey, this whole controversy sure is something, eh?” without really committing to a firm stance. This wouldn’t bother me so much if the show didn’t seem so bent on having a take on everything that happens. If you’re going to do episodes that focus entirely on responding to current events, they should have more coherent points.
In the subplot, we finally see the return of the PC principal/Strong Woman storyline from last season. She wants to put the affair behind her, but things become a bit complicated when we find out that she’s pregnant with his children. Compounding the problem, they’re obviously his, because they’re just so damn PC. Not only were they only born with his trademark sunglasses on, but they also start crying if you tell problematic jokes or use outdated language around them (I won’t lie, this was probably the most clever part of the episode).
It was nice to see they haven’t abandoned this storyline, although I do fear the point will get a repetitive. Yes, office romances aren’t always necessarily horrible, and if a male boss dates one of his female employees, that doesn’t make him a Harvey Weinstein-level monster. But with every scene ironically saying that their affair was the worst thing a person could possibly do, when Trey and Matt clearly feel the opposite way, it’s hard not think “okay, we fucking get it.” Hopefully, that arc will break new ground in future episodes, but I can’t help but think they’re too committed to that angle at this point. Basically, while the episode’s main plot was too unclear in its point, the subplot was ultimately too heavy-handed in making its own, especially since they’ve been harping on it since last season.
“The Problem With A Poo” was a convoluted attempt to insert too many of-the-moment references into one half-hour without definitively saying anything about the possibility of redemption for once-beloved entertainers who engage in abusive behavior. Granted, this is a function of the serial storyline, which is going to come to a head at the end of the season, and by that point, we’ll hopefully have a more clear view of what this season is trying to say. I would imagine that Trey and Matt have their own feelings about Roseanne, Louie, and people like Norm, who have stood up for them, and I would imagine future episodes will have them grappling with the question further. Still, it would have been nice to see them start with a more firm thesis, especially since they’ve had the whole summer to think about it.
-Okay, so is Mr. Hankey really on Ambien, or what? In one scene, Kyle tells him not to use it, and he says he’ll only just take a little. Is it just an excuse, or is it really a thing? I’ll make a prediction that in a later episode, we’ll see Mr. Hankey actually take Ambien.
-While we’re at it, is Mr. Hankey is gone for good? I mean, the character isn’t really offensive (well, not from a social justice standpoint, anyway), but it representative of the show’s early days, when the show was ore nihilistic than it is now, and before it reached its pinnacle, which I would say was seasons 6-8. Maybe they’re shamed of their own creation?
-When Mr. Hankey initially sought help from Gerald, I thought perhaps they were going to reference his history as skankhunt42. Kinda disappointed, actually.
-”A Poo-ber? They have that?! Oh, it’s just Lyft.”