I’ve talked a lot in these reviews about South Park’s increased emphasis on long-form storytelling—the pros and cons of drawing out one large arc throughout a single season. But the conversation has tended to lean towards how the serialization has affected the show’s themes; its morality; its politics. Now that things aren’t so self-contained, the Big Idea isn’t completely clear (or even coherent) until the finale.

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But it’s rare that we get to discuss the raw plot mechanics, and tonight’s episode, “Fort Collins,” feels like a good opportunity to do so. Like several of the installments this season, it finds the varying conflicts more or less in flux (though slowly continuing to dovetail) as they inch to the finish line. Mr. Garrison’s still trying to figure out how he can lose the election, Cartman experiences the downside of Troll Trace firsthand, and Gerald willfully separates himself from the other trolls when Dildo Schwaggins shows his vulnerability.

Much of this is likely setup for the next few episodes, and as such, focuses more on exposition and—honest to God—emotion. Gerald’s exchanges with Schwaggins may not contain any memorable gags, but they do add a semi-complex sort of morality to the world of trolling. Schwaggins points out that, unlike Gerald, he doesn’t troll just to be an asshole. He does it as a direct response to some of his own personal pain. He doesn’t remember calling someone else a “fag” for no reason as a kid—he was the one being called “fag.” That’s still no excuse for his behavior, but at the same time, it does paint a clear distinction between his own moral code and Gerald’s.

Like many of the other threads of “Fort Collins,” however, it doesn’t pack a ton of urgency. Heidi’s Emoji analysis suffers the same fate, adding up to little more than a lot of talky detective work. Even as Trey Parker and Matt Stone make observations about the dangers of online policing, there’s still a sense of the episode searching for something. Maybe they’ve already figured out how this all ends, or maybe they haven’t. Either way, everything comes off as a bit scattered right now.

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But as they’ve done with many plot-heavy episodes in the past (as recently as last season), the creators upgrade “Fort Collins” from a mediocre half-hour of South Park to a slightly above-average one by using their greatest weapon: jokes. Even as the story wanders, the gags work independently of the unfocused plotting. The Member Berries’ voices alone are enough to induce laughter—so infectiously idiotic in how they spout off Star Wars references with such jolliness and confidence. Here, they move to the driver’s seat (literally) as they escape Randy’s plot to murder them all and thwart Garrison getting elected.

This results in a series of bizarre homages involving the berries. Even when they speak in hushed tones while sneaking out of the kitchen a la The Great Escape, they can’t resist talking about Jabba The Hutt. One of them even looks like the Tatooine crime lord. The tonal juxtaposition becomes even more amplified (and thus more funny) later on when they’re cruising down a highway in a miniature car. When they hear a thump in the trunk, the scene soon becomes an homage to the pre-credits opening of Goodfellas. They pull over and reveal that they’ve tied up one of their own in the back, having beaten him bloody for a sacrifice at the end of the episode.

The whole ordeal would be foreboding if they weren’t, you know, pieces of fruit. Also, they’re listening to Toto in the car. Is there any scene in South Park that won’t automatically become funnier with “Africa” playing in the background? Thanks to the strange soundtrack choice and the Billy Batts surrogate in the trunk, the sequence capitalizes on the mixture of absurdity, grimness, and pop-culture homage that South Park continues to do so well.

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That formula also works during a handful of scenes in the trolling storyline. While Cartman fretting about his online history in real life feels tame by Cartman standards (even his comments about the Ghostbusters remake are passé for him), it does manifest itself in his daydreams in a way that’s visually amusing. Since Heidi showed him her vagina, he’s begun envisioning womanhood as a Martian colony in his mind, complete with labia-shaped towers and neon roller coasters that invite him to come frolic. When Troll Trace threatens to reveal his past, a dust storm topples the fantasy structures in his head, suddenly throwing him into Matt Damon survival mode.

Disaster strikes on a bigger scale in “Fort Collins”’ final winning sequence, where the city of the title plunges into chaos after Troll Trace enables everyone to see who’s posting what online. This doesn’t bode well for the early-Michael-Jackson-looking troll, MLKKK, who gets burned alive by the father of a wheelchair-bound girl he cyber-bullied. South Park almost always does this sort of over-the-top violence right, and the Fort Collins scene is no exception, the pandemonium recalling the opening of Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake. The idea of unchecked online tracing being a detriment to society isn’t particularly original, but at least it births some comedic offshoots that are. Now that South Park’s in the second half of its twentieth season, maybe the core story will start holding its own against the weirdness.

Stray observations

  • Does anyone have the proper spelling for the Danish song?
  • UPDATE: Commenter redundant has directed us to the theme song for a Danish children’s show called Alletiders Jul. Listen to it here. They’ve also posted the lyrics in the comments section. Thanks, redundant!
  • While getting tortured, that one Member Berry sounded like R2-D2 getting shot in Luke’s X-Wing or spat out of the swamp in Dagobah.
  • “‘Member Mos Eisley? ‘Member the Rancor? ‘Member the cantina?”
  • “‘Member Wedge? I love Wedge.”
  • “‘Member IG-88? The bounty hunter droid?” The berries are right. Of Bossk, Dengar, Zuckuss, and 4-LOM, and any other bounty hunter who’s not Boba Fett, he was the best.
  • “He’s burning bright, little girl!”
  • “Buckle up. Buckaroo.”

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