One obvious advantage of South Park’s down-to-the-wire production schedule is that Trey Parker and Matt Stone can skewer whatever’s happening in the news that week. Sometimes it results in episodes so raw and unfiltered in their lampooning, they become instant classics. Other times though, the commentary comes out half-baked, as if the creators didn’t have enough time to develop a fully formed point of view.
Parker and Stone’s treatment of the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump already had a lot working against it. For one, the season premiere once again leaned on the “giant douche or turd sandwich” conceit from 2004 that, while still accurate in the eyes of some voters, also feels tired at this point. We get it. Politicians suck and it sucks that we always have to choose between people that suck to lead the country. As Randy Marsh points out, everything sucks. But the “Everything sucks” viewpoint is also somewhat of a copout for South Park these days, giving credence to the frequent criticism that the show often resorts to not choosing one stance over another. Then there’s the obvious problem of the election itself. Campaign 2016 has already been such a maddening circus that’s been made fun of to death. What could Parker and Stone add to the conversation?
Not a lot, it seems. Although “The Damned” has a handful of bright moments in its treatment of the debate, its core joke isn’t colorful or absurd enough to be all that amusing. At the same time, it doesn’t even feel all that accurate. Trump stand-in Mr. Garrison—continuing to freak out at the prospect of actually getting elected President—flat-out tells voters how horrible he’d be as a leader. And since Clinton’s been instructed to act rational and in the face of his lunacy, she repeatedly tells the audience “My opponent is a liar and cannot be trusted.” The crowd listens to her, and as a result, continues to support her rival.
All of this reads as a somewhat inaccurate portrayal of the election, not to mention the debate itself. Yes, people continue to support Trump, even as he says increasingly insane things. But the difference between him and Garrison is that Garrison actually is being honest, and Trump is…well, not. Yes, Clinton has struggled with being perceived as robotic, and perhaps her composure has made Trump seem more appealing to some voters. But to present her demeanor at the debate as directly adding legions of supporters to Trump/Garrison’s fanbase seems strange. Neither candidate comes off how they actually acted on Monday night.
Granted, this is South Park, and its version of reality is always going to be exaggerated, but that’s exactly the problem with “The Damned.” Because of its close proximity to the actual debate; because it never reaches the comically absurd heights of other down-to-the-wire episodes like “About Last Night,” it feels like Parker and Stone are very much intending to comment on events that happened just two nights ago. But the commentary feels a bit off—lumpy when it should be razor-sharp.
To be fair, there’s still the possibility of a significant, unexpected payoff, as “The Damned” is more of a transition episode than anything. As many of you predicted in the comments section, it looks like the Member Berries may also have something to do with why Garrison’s gaining such enormous and feverish support. But nothing gets revealed beyond an ominous visit to the Old Farmer (a.k.a. Jud Crandall from Pet Sematary), who explains that people have been crazy about the mysterious talking fruits. There’s also Gerald’s trolling storyline, also somewhat in limbo after his online taunts cause Freja Ollegard to commit suicide. In addition to finally showing a more substantial consequence to his actions, it kicks off another subplot that may end up involving literal Scandinavian trolls. Or maybe not. Like Randy and Stephen Stotch trying to figure out why everyone keeps flipping back and forth over their preferred presidential candidate, Gerald’s thread continues to be in flux.
And that’s the one downside to South Park’s semi-recent emphasis on longer-form, serialized storytelling. Sometimes, there’s so much plot to get out of the way, that an episode might come up short on the jokes. As they delve further into their respective mysteries, neither the election nor the trolling storyline has a knockout gag like the Boston montage of last week, instead valuing delayed reveals and red herrings over batshit humor.
As such, most of “The Damned”’s comedic mileage comes from Cartman and Heidi’s time at the playground. It’s a place where lost souls who have been a victim of social-media suicide or homicide go and, ironically, form actual human connections. As Cartman explains his metamorphosis into a more tolerant (if still misguided and condescending) person with a straight, spaced-out face, it reads like an overly somber after-school special, made even funnier by the fact that his exchanges with Heidi are kind of sweet. Even as a gentler version of himself, Cartman will always be Cartman. He’ll always be a little arrogant, a little oblivious, a little cruel. But we’ve never seen him forge such a sincere, vulnerable relationship with another student before. And that’s a much more interesting narrative than “everything sucks.” Even if it does.
- Tonight was the first time that I noticed Stan’s Road Warrior poster had gotten switched out for a Fury Road poster. Nice touch.
- I wonder if a Member Berry squealing “Memba ‘80s?” right after the return of a Pet Sematary homage was intentional. Probably.
- “Memba Tatooine? Memba that torture droid?”
- “@where, sir? @where?”
- “People don’t just quit social media. They post long, drawn-out messages on social media to explain why they’re leaving social media.”
- “I am not the guy you want going to Russia to try and negotiate with Putin. I’ll probably end up getting drunk and trying to suck his dick.”