Throughout the back half of this 15th season, I’ve been looking for ways in which South Park has either lived up to the implied promise of change in “You’re Getting Old” or simply ignored it. It’s been one of the least favorite recurring themes for many of you, but I’ve done so because it’s fascinating to see the show confront a future for its characters. Looking at the present is all well and good, but for the show to take the occasional hard look at these characters attempting to grow up pushes the show past simple satire into something far more profound.
Even using the word “profound” probably pisses some of you off. This A.V. Club version of the 99 percent just want to know if the episode was funny or not. I’m not sure any review could tell you that, whether it be about South Park or any other comedy on the air right now. Saying “It was funny” or “It wasn’t funny” isn’t really a review. It’s a statement, and a subjective one at that. A review is also inherently subjective, but hopefully touches on things beyond visceral reactions to comedy in order to get at whether or not the episode worked as a whole. And what worked in tonight’s episode didn’t really have much to do with what was funny about it. While there were a few laughs to be had, humor wasn’t really the focus tonight. The focus instead lay on the twisted mind of Eric Cartman actually going through a potentially life-changing part of his existence.
Just as “You’re Getting Old” laid in its more serious themes subtly in order to sucker punch the audience by episode’s end, so too did “1%” employ misdirection in order to disguise its true intent. On one level, tonight’s episode was a parody of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that has spread across the country. Turning that type of class warfare into a LITERAL class warfare between the fourth and fifth graders was the show’s best joke, one carefully built up and then unleashed at the perfect point in the episode. That matched last week’s “Broadway Bro Down” in terms of setting up a punch line through plot and then picking the optimal point to deploy it.
This aspect of the episode also managed to savage the news media, portraying them as excited to the point of sexual fervor over such protests. The way in which the in-field reporter made “Occupy Red Robin” all about him mirrored the way in which so many reporters on local news programs fashion themselves as the protagonists of their own stories. Even more intriguingly, I thought the show was going to go the way of The Incredibles in its depiction of the Presidential Fitness Test. In order to be politically correct, the local government representative chooses to lump all the healthy students in with the one fat and lazy one. In a day and age in which plenty of youth sports leagues refuse to confer victory on one side over another, is it THAT far-fetched to have a government refuse to single out the worst student in order to spare his feelings?
And yet, those feelings are hardly spared at all, and that’s where the genius of tonight’s episode truly played out. While the protest aspects of the show were fine, the Eric-centric material was gold. Sure, Cartman initially seems to brush off the stigma associated with his horrific physical test results. We’ve seen him throughout the past 15 seasons latch on to an outlandish viewpoint and incorporate it effortlessly into his existence. Sometimes he absorbs it into his own persona, and oftentimes he displaces his own to accommodate his latest passion or neurosis. But what occurred tonight showed how much this particular delusion was actually needed in order to push himself past the point of psychological stasis. Cartman didn’t try to assimilate a new personality. He tried to transcend himself in order to fundamentally alter his native state. Cartman did this! I saw it on my television and everything, people.
Throughout the episode, he pours his feelings into, and out of, his stuffed toy collection. Each version of this conversations takes on a new level as the episode progresses. In the first, South Park primarily plays it for laughs, as the punch line to a taunt heard at school. We see him converse with/through Clyde Frog, Peter Panda, Polly Prissy Pants, and others, but there’s little to denote that something unusual is really going on. We get a better sense of deeper, more troubling issues when next we see the animals in the wake of Clyde’s “death” in the backyard. While hosting a tea party, Cartman uses each toy as a way to verbally express his inner emotions to his mother. Liane tells Eric she can talk to him directly, but that’s the point of the episode: Cartman literally can’t express himself through anything but these toys in the wake of the fitness results. And yet, as we learn inside Token’s house later on, those same toys are what are holding him back from “growing up” in the way his classmates implore him.
Making Cartman an unreliable narrator worked because the show so often features Cartman’s work as unseen by others, NOT by himself. It’s a trick that South Park could pull off in the way that Lost pulled off a certain trick at the end of its third season. By using the audience's expectations against it, the show could hide in plain sight what was really going on. His insistence on spending the night at Token’s house certainly made it seem like good ol’ offensive Cartman was still in control. And consciously, he certainly was. But subconsciously, he was setting up deathtraps that would make Jigsaw green with envy. Does any of this hold up under close, logical scrutiny? Could Cartman both be outside of Token’s house and stringing up Rubbertumskin? Hell no. But emotionally, it worked like gangbusters, and that’s what matters here. Slowly bringing in others to witness Cartman’s conversation with the last remaining toy was brutally effective and gave weight to the proceedings. None of it was funny. Everything about it worked.
And sure, maybe you could see this coming… if you assumed Cartman was capable of even WANTING change. If you could watch this show under that assumption, awesome. +5 for you. But to assume that also assumes that change is possible in the South Park universe, which brings us all full circle to the outset of this review and the sum total of my look at the back half of this season. Symmetry: it’s the other, other, other white meat. Or something. In any case, it makes me EXTREMELY interested to see if the next two weeks incorporate what happened tonight in a meaningful manner, or if it drops it altogether. And it doesn’t have to be a funny finale to be a successful one. The episode could be both funny AND successful, to be sure. But the former doesn’t inherently lead to the latter. Tonight’s episode, just like “You’re Getting Old”, has proven this conclusively.
- If you’re going to start a rally that will inspire the masses, you could probably do no worse than starting with Butters and Jimmy Vulmer. I kept waiting for Butters to inspire the citizens of Mexico to rally to their cause. But that’s just me and my silly continuity fetish springing up again.
- Is Polly Prissy Pants the South Park equivalent of Tyler Durden? Or have I just broken the first rule of Stuffed Toy Club?
- The Michael Moore jab was cheap, but c’mon: You knew the show would bust him out for the protest.
- The increasingly tortured math of the 99 percent versus the 83 percent had me on the floor. I love it when the show takes vague concepts/platitudes and reduces them to rubble simply by shining a light upon them.
- “Wow, Craig, I can’t believe you just went there. Here we were, having a perfectly nice conversation about Kenny being poor and Kyle being a Jew, and you just decided to go 9/11 and bust out the fat quip.”
- “Butters, how many times do we have to go over this? That’s not Skeletor. That’s Maria Shriver.”
- “Tom, it looks like the movement is finished!”
- “We told him to grow up. So he killed his stuffed animals.”