For all of “Member Berries”’ unpacking of remakes, nostalgia, and the current presidential election, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have followed up the season premiere of South Park by narrowing their focus to internet culture. Of course, those two words aren’t necessarily a narrowing at all, as they carry just as much weight as each of last week’s topics combined. As “Skank Hunt” points out, the internet is frequently a matter of life and death. Or so we tell ourselves.

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That’s the main joke at work here: That our relationship with the online world has become so poisonous and parasitic, we equate deleting one’s social-media accounts with actual suicide; we equate taking away someone’s phone, tablet, and computer with murdering them, at least until they can repurchase these devices. It’s an obvious gag, but also one that’s observant and true.

Don’t believe me? Think about someone you know who’s taken a break from Facebook for a bit. Did they do it quietly? Probably not. They probably made a big proclamation about it, the same way they’d announce an engagement or a pregnancy to all of their family and friends. Then they most likely came crawling back to social media a few weeks later. Or maybe it was a few months. Maybe they even held out a whole year. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The point is, they came back. Like piglets sucking at the blocky teat of a Minecraft sow, they always come back. I do. You do. We all do. Because the internet only has as much power as we allow it. And we’ve allowed it to have a lot.

In “Skank Hunt,” the boys are so attached to the web, that when they believe Cartman to be the town’s online troll, their plot to destroy his technology unfolds like the plot of a horror movie or a teenage revenge flick like Mean Creek or Bully. And when the girls break up with them in the aftermath of their mistake, the handwritten notes, tears, and wailing are all given a far more dramatic gravity than any elementary-school romance deserves. For the comedic cherry on top, “Gortoz a Ran J’Attends” from Black Hawk Down plays over the entire sequence, cementing the depiction of the kids as true casualties of war, at least in the community’s mind. The dramatics extend to Mr. Mackey’s thread as well, where he has to convince Scott Malkinson not to delete his Twitter account the same way he’d convince someone not to jump off a bridge.

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South Park has always excelled at this type of intentionally overblown grimness, and like many great episodes before it, “Skank Hunt” also has a tougher-than-it-oughta-be argument at its core: Why not just go offline with grace? Why do we give so much weight to the decision to simply step away from the internet for a little while, a force that has proven time and time again to be psychologically damaging? “Skank Hunt” is more interested in the question than the answer, and as a result, it can yield either action or compelling thought within the viewer. One South Park fan might actually close their laptop the next time something or someone is bothering them online, rather than let it ruin their day or affect their life outside of their screen. But another fan might relate to how Herculean of a task it’s become to separate their online life from their real life. Do those terms even mean anything these days? They may then repeat the initial question over and over again to themselves: “Why do we inflict so much self-harm when it comes to our online lives?”

Well, for one, the internet’s also—to put it bluntly—as awesome as it is dangerous. It has the power to make you feel really, really good, even if it’s sometimes for all the wrong reasons. As revealed last week, the troll in question isn’t the obvious choice of Eric Cartman, but the way more surprising Gerald Broflovski. While the easy narrative would be to depict him as disgruntled—as a middle-aged man privately and viciously taking out his frustrations on people he’s never met—the show takes a more difficult path. It turns out Gerald loves being a troll, not because he’s unhappy, but because it makes him feel really good. As he puts it, it’s fun to stir the pot and watch everyone freak out.

In fact, it feels so good, that he strolls out of his house every morning to the tune of Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” a ubiquitous feel-good anthem if there ever was one. And in the episode’s most gut-busting sequence, he leaves his nasty comments while Boston’s “Smokin’” spins on his record player in the background. The ritual fills him with so much joy that he clacks on his two keyboards with the same mad-scientist posture that Tom Scholz (or any 1970s rock organist for that matter) wails on his Hammond.

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It’s tempting to read all of this as an endorsement of trolling, but “Skank Hunt” makes a point to show how cruel Gerald’s actions are—his all-caps remarks zipping across the screen for the audience to see. At the same time though, Parker and Stone recognize that, for certain people, cruelty feels great. For every troll who spits venom online because they hate themselves, there’s one out there who relishes being anonymously harmful to others.

It’s an alarming theory for sure, and yet maybe there’s something to learn from Gerald’s actions. Where the rest of the town is incapable of divorcing the effects of the internet from their day-to-day activities, he’s able to keep the two worlds separate. He’s still nice to everyone he interacts with in real life, never seeing his comment-section insults as anything more than a hobby that gives him pleasure. Once again, “Skank Hunt” isn’t condoning his newfound status as a malicious asshole. It still recognizes that Gerald’s causing a great deal of pain to those around him. But maybe there’s a happy medium between his disconnect and the rest of South Park’s (and our own) unhealthy emotionalism.

Stray observations

  • Hello! Welcome to Season 20. It’s always a pleasure to be back on the South Park beat. Huge thanks to Kevin Johnson for doing a stellar job covering the premiere while I was away.
  • Like Kevin, I’m wondering what the end game for the Member Berries is going to be. Their voices crack me up. I’m just trying to predict how they’ll tie into the main arc of the season.
  • It’s worth pausing the episode to read all the bullets on the “Signs That My Child Is A Troll” poster in the opening scene. My personal favorite indicator is “Scary.”
  • The incorporation of Boston actually playing in the trolling montage was a gift from Heaven.
  • Confession: When I write, my frequent go-to music is The Band, and there have been many times when, while clattering away on the keys, I’ve pictured myself as Richard Manuel going to town on his piano or Garth Hudson manning the organ stacks. I’m embarrassed yet thrilled that Gerald’s technique hits so close to home.
  • “Fuck, just do it.”
  • “‘Memba Jeff Goldblum?”

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