It feels like something was fundamentally off with the season 21 premiere of South Park. Or maybe something’s fundamentally wrong with us, and South Park just can’t deliver what it used to in 2017’s shattered America.
South Park has always lived on the edge of American culture, assembling disparate elements of pop, politics, and media to assemble them into a hilarious commentary on the state of things as they are. When the show brings its A-game, it makes us take a good, long look at what we’re forcing ourselves into, and then throws in a gratuitous death or scatalogical joke and then makes us laugh at the whole thing. Take the instance from not too many years ago, where the town became obsessed with shopping at Whole Foods, and simultaneously worked in charity shaming and put Randy through absurd lengths to reject giving a dollar to the poor.
Something snapped in last year’s Season 20, where the show’s latest season-long epic with talking Nazi nostalgia berries, Elon Musk, and the Presidential election somehow became derailed by Stone and Parker’s reaction to real-world events, and suddenly, they couldn’t do it anymore. This was notable in the Season 20 finale, which just sort of…happened…without really meaningfully resolving its confluence of storylines, and fans being more than a little perplexed about what they’d just watched.
So Season 21 seems to be, I don’t know, trying to be relevant and controversial while still playing it safe. Commenting on the election is something that everyone and his mother is doing right now, so what can Stone and Parker really add to the national discussion? Worse, Stone and Parker have always operated best when they piss of both sides of an argument, pointing out the shortcomings of the arguments on both the left and the right and leaving nothing sacred. Is that something they can do anymore? The United States has become ever-so-increasingly polarized, and it feels like satire might be lost on whomever the creators wanted to take a swipe at. They’d just be offended.
“White People Renovating Houses” plays it safe by commenting on some very low hanging fruit: the increased prevalence of Alexa, lame home makeover shows, and a very meek look at the Charlottesville protests. But that last item is only superficially commented on: there’s not much here about Nazis or murders or statue removal, and South Park, for all its tastelessness, really wouldn’t be able to meaningfully comment on that still-open wound. So instead, it’s just a generalized commentary on the town rednecks being upset about losing work to Alexa for…some reason.
The episode seems to be making a generalized commentary on superficiality: the rednecks only have a notional concept that Alexa is taking their work and that they’re oppressed. Concurrent with that story, Cartman is infatuated with the Alexa program, who is utterly subservient to him and is an endless supply of cheap sexual humor. (“Alexa, add ‘Big Hairy Balls’ to my shopping list.”) It’s Cartmannishly consistent, even if it gets old fast. Alexa is also an open source of an emotional affair for Cartman, as she gives cheap laughs instead of requiring the work of an actual relationship that’s required with Heidi. And also, Randy Marsh–the superficial heart of the show–is now running a home makeover show in which the only thing he does is remove the wall between the living room and the kitchen.
So, in a chuckleworthy turn of events–and that’s about as good as things get–Randy Marsh comes to the rescue by suggesting that the rednecks replace Alexa by literally sitting in everyone’s houses and parroting back whatever they want. This isn’t good for the rednecks, as they quickly realize that getting the “jerbs” that Alexa stole isn’t actually meaningful work. And Cartman’s cheap relationship with Alexa is replaced with a fat yokel in his living room. Nobody is happy, because suddenly they’re forced into a hefty dose of reality.
This is all kind of funny, in the same way that a generic summer comedy has some laughs which are funnier in the trailer than the actual movie. Stone and Parker have presented some silliness here, but nothing with the edge that will leave you talking about the show the next morning.
Maybe South Park has run out of steam in 2017 America. The show that always “went there” seems to have run out of “theres” to go there. The reality of life outside our televisions is now a source of dismay, and the show is going to have a hard time capitalizing on that. In a way, tonight’s episode is a sad reflection of how relevant South Park can be in a divided country that’s too angry to be funny. Like Alexa or an Alexa protest march, the fantasy may be preferrable to the reality…but the reality makes it hard to get any satisfaction from the fantasy.
Rating: One cheesy poof out of five.