Photo: Comedy Central

Even if Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always been shameless in their self-promotion, they’ve at least been able to turn it into a good joke. To sell more tickets to The Book Of Mormon tour, they tacked on an advertisement to the end of a Broadway-themed episode in Season 15 (one of their best), and their South Park: The Stick Of Truth video game was preceded by an entire three-episode tie-in during Season 17.

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The Stick Of Truth’s sequel, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, comes out this Tuesday, and like its predecessor, gets some significant screen-time as part of its ramp-up. “Franchise Prequel” doesn’t have the epic scope as The Stick Of Truth’s tie-in trilogy, but the concept is the same: Set up a new adventure for the boys’ alter-egos (superheroes, not fantasy characters this time) that will carry over directly to the game.

My indifferent feelings toward “Franchise Prequel” probably have to do with taste more than anything. Cartman doing his best gravel-voiced Batman impression as The Coon has never been all that funny to me, video game tie-in or not. So watching yet another episode dedicated to his moonlighting as a crimefighter was always going to be a losing battle. Jimmy’s Flash-like origin story as Fast Pass is slightly more amusing, as are some of the other purposely lame superhero identities, such as Token’s riff on Cyborg, Tupperware. But their Justice League gets decidedly less screen time than Cartman’s Batman. After all, this is Coon & Friends—not the other way around.

The ace in the hole could have been Butters as the Friends’ arch-rival, Professor Chaos. But Parker and Stone allow him to depart from his usual storyline by giving him a plan that actually works this time around. Taking advantage of Facebook’s facilitation of actual fake news, Professor Chaos starts spreading disparaging lies about Coon & Friends, which prevents them from greenlighting their own three-phase superhero franchise with Netflix. All of this leads to the expansion of Butters’ fake-news operation, with the rumors eventually spreading to the adults of South Park. They invite Mark Zuckerberg to town to explain what’s going on.

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So we’re left with an episode where most of the humor derives from the two villains—Professor Chaos and Zuckerberg—at the center. But it’s hard for Professor Chaos to be funny when his scheme is so effective. While there’s an argument to be made for a character that changes over time, it also takes away from what makes Butters’ alter ego so entertaining in the first place.

In Zuckerberg’s case, it’s an issue of not taking a joke far enough. Parker and Stone portray him as a hybrid between his awkward VR avatar—which, in a promotion for Facebook’s Spaces app this week, took a troubling tour through Puerto Rico—and a generic martial-arts character you’d play as in Double Dragon or Street Fighter. As Zuckerberg visits South Park, he never answers anyone’s questions, instead raiding their pantries and claiming to block everything in his path with his “shtoyle.”

The problem is, this never escalates. We get every gag we’re going to get from Zuckerberg within the first minute of meeting him. I’m not saying every episode of South Park has to rely on gross-out humor, but Parker and Stone have always had a knack for the scatological. One wonders what violent, profane, or disgusting directions they could have gone with Zuckerberg to make him an iconic South Park villain in the vein of Mel Gibson—a real-life figure whose demeanor doesn’t quite fit in with the series’ universe. Even his final showdown with the boys is anticlimactic. After some back-and-forth combat, they defeat him by creating their own bit of fake news, with The Coon claiming during a Facebook live session that Zuckerberg tried to prevent them from helping the poor, the handicapped, black people, etc.

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This resolution suffers from the same kind of specificity and extremeness as Zuckerberg’s characterization. This is Cartman we’re talking about. When it comes to defamatory fake news about Zuckerberg, couldn’t he have come up with something less generic? Something more pointed and cringe-inducing? Something more South Park?

By the end, “Franchise Prequel” takes some timely jabs at Marvel’s byzantine rollout plan for its cinematic universe, as well as our own complicity in the fake news problem by relying so much on Facebook to begin with. But neither of those elements get more than a scene. Most of the episode just focuses on the kids pretending to be superheroes, which I suppose makes for an alright video game commercial.

Stray observations

  • Seeing Professor Chaos and his minions housed in a derelict Circuit City depresses me more than it should.
  • We need more General Disarray.
  • “Nothing. Just wearing fucking sweet costumes and talking about fighting evil. Is that okay?”
  • “Are you using Facebook to fuck with our superhero franchise?”

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