More than 15 years ago, the now-classic South Park episode “Trapped In The Closet” lampooned the Church of Scientology simply by stating the religion’s beliefs out loud. A bit of condensed Dianetics, some shoddy animation of Xenu, and the words “THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE” flashing across the screen in all caps was all it took.
The South ParQ Vaccination Special gives a similar treatment to QAnon. When Mr. Garrison returns to teaching after his (a.k.a. Trump’s) presidency comes to an end, most of the town’s parents pull the students out of school, fearful of exposing their kids to a man who caused so much destruction to the world. South Park Elementary’s educators are also being put under additional stress due to not being given access to the new COVID vaccine. That’s when Q’s disgraced and debunked supporters swoop in, reassembling as a homeschooling service called Tutoron to clandestinely infect the youth of South Park with their false doctrine.
In many ways, QAnon’s beliefs feel even more absurd than Scientology’s, especially when illustrated so horrifically and graphically in a textbook shown to Craig by one of the tutors. There’s no way anyone could actually believe in an image of Oprah Winfrey grinning like a vampire as she gulps child’s blood from a goblet, or Barack Obama tearing open another kid’s neck with his teeth. Except that they do. Lots of people believe in these things—so much so that Trey Parker and Matt Stone don’t even have to clarify the sequence with the additional text of their Scientology synopsis.
That’s the reality we live in for South Park’s first episode of the post-Trump era (or at least an era where Donald Trump is no longer president). The world feels a lot stranger than it did when “Trapped In The Closet” aired back in 2005, and a more competent commander-in-chief and vaccine aren’t going to magically transport everything back to better times right off the bat. That sad truth outfits the show’s depiction of QAnon in the kind of resigned humor that made its way into the show during the Trump years—a recognition that you can’t exaggerate what’s already exaggerated. The gag can wear thin if it’s stretched out over an entire season (as it did with Garrison as Trump), but in one of the somewhat self-contained specials Parker and Stone have taken to creating as the planet reels from coronavirus, it works quite well.
As with September’s Pandemic Special, the more planned-out format often allows South Park to comment on the current sociopolitical moment more effectively than in a regular season. When the show’s creators aren’t scrambling up until the last minute to put together a weekly episode, their jokes feel focused, articulate, and evenly threaded throughout the evening. One of the Vaccine Special’s best bits sits right at the core of the story, with the high demand and low supply of vaccine doses transforming Walgreens into an exclusive environment reminiscent of a trendy nightclub. While most of South Park’s residents are left stranded outside the door to contend with a surly bouncer, the town’s senior citizens waltz right in before indulging in the rebellious behavior and busy social lives usually enjoyed by younger people.
In an attempt to support their teachers and win back Mrs. Nelson—thus eliminating Garrison as her replacement—Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny infiltrate the pharmacy to obtain the highly coveted vaccines. This ignites a chain of events that eventually leads to an explosive showdown between the boys, their Q-converted classmates (amusingly dubbed the Lil’ Qties), the adult QAnon supporters, townspeople still seeking the vaccine, and two stir-crazy news anchors. If that sounds like a lot to navigate, the hour-long runtime gives Parker and Stone enough space to keep track of all the threads and let the story unfold coherently. And once again, there’s something to be said for the months of planning that were able to go into the episode.
Strangely, it’s in the smaller C-story that’s not at all tied to pandemics, conspiracy theories, or politics where Vaccination Special briefly stumbles. Throughout the hour, Cartman is constantly worrying that the quarantine has frayed the boys’ friendship. Stan and Kyle agree with him toward the end of the episode, conceding that, in the wake of the pandemic, things don’t feel quite like they used to. The conversation devolves into a kind of mock divorce proceeding where the three come up with a convoluted plan to share custody of Kenny. Besides feeling tangential to everything else going on, the boys’ fractured bond is never all that convincing, plus the idea of a half-assed reset feels like a thinner, less consequential version of 2011's “You’re Getting Old.”
The concept of an ill-advised restart ends up working a lot better when carried over to the episode’s larger geopolitical plot points. Once everyone has a vaccine, everything more or less goes back to normal, with Garrison forgiven, Walgreens abandoned, the old folks banished back to their nursing home, and South Park’s denizens engaging in reckless socialization (the two dudes gleefully spitting in each other’s mouths was a nice touch). Unlike the divorce subplot, the finale hits home because—let’s face it—as human beings, we’re not always the best at learning from our worst mistakes. Once enough of us are fully vaccinated, will we take measures to prevent another pandemic, or will we just act like it never happened, perpetuating the same behavior that led to the spread of COVID in the first place? Whatever the outcome, South Park will be there to make fun of us for it. And like the QAnon sequence, no additional text will be required.
- Hello! I’m happy to once again be back covering South Park after a lengthy hiatus. Here’s hoping we get a full season in the fall.
- Maybe it was the animation’s mixture of crudeness and fluidity or maybe it was just the overall absurdity of the situation, but there was something absolutely gut-busting about the old guy doing donuts on the motorcycle in the school’s parking lot.
- How did everyone feel about the metafictional angle of the ending where Mr. Garrison seemed to be communicating with the show’s animators/creators (presumably Parker and Stone)? I’m on the fence about it. On one hand, it all felt a little easy in terms of resolution, but on the other hand, that was kind of the point.
- Speaking of which, Mr. White’s physical appearance after turning into a giant penis felt reminiscent of Cartman’s Tetsuo form back in “Trapper Keeper.”
- “All of us Whites were really on your side.”
- “The elite want to fuck with our kids? We’ll fuck theirs.”
- “So does Oprah drink the same blood as Obama or is it usually a different kid?”