While some of my favorite South Park episodes are the ones that don’t aim for any social commentary and just revel in being crude and weird, the strongest episodes often are the ones that satirize subjects ripe for being ripped into. The main problem with this, however, is that the strength of the episode rests on the meatiness of the target. In last week’s episode, the invasion-of-privacy concept with the T.S.A. was a good one, easy to appreciate as most of us have either been groped in the name of airport safety or seen photos of T.S.A. agents patting down kids in strollers, the ridiculousness of it all eclipsing the meaning behind the security. So there was trepidation going into this episode, knowing it was going to be taking on home shopping channels, because those are such benign targets that it’s hard to think of the show getting any mileage out of the topic. To the show’s credit, it does ultimately muster some righteous anger, but the commentary winds up falling short of previous efforts, the satire not nearly as sharp and relying too heavily on crude humor to carry the weight.
The episode begins with Stan’s grandfather gifting him a bejeweled bolo tie that cost him $6,000 from a home shopping channel, one encrusted with gold and diamonds, so Stan can look sharp for the ladies. Stan is nonplussed by the gift. He does his best to rebuff the teases of the other boys (well, just Cartman) before admitting that yes, the gift sucks, so the boys hit up a few of those “Cash 4 Gold” stores. The offers get progressively worse, enraging Stan more and more. When he hears his grandfather calling in to a home shopping network once again, he decides to confront his grandfather about wasting his money.
There’s an underlying melancholia to Stan (or, if you will, Billy’s) interactions with his grandfather. While his failure to remember Stan’s name is often played for laughs, here, it’s played for genuinely motivational purposes. When Stan confronts his grandfather about the jewelry and his grandfather delivers a speech about his dog Patches, it genuinely feels a little sad and gives Stan the motivation he needs to seek vengeance against those—Dean of Jewel Bonanza with Dean—who take advantage of people like his grandfather. Using Stan’s grandfather for more than an easy laugh doesn’t feel forced, either; it’s done in such a way that feels in line with the tone of both Stan and his grandfather and doesn't take the show outside its comfort zone, only strengthening their interactions. As usual, Stan serves as the writers’ mouthpiece, calling in to Dean’s show and eviscerating him for preying on his grandfather and other elderly shoppers, imploring Dean to just kill himself: “I’m not joking. Do it.” The writers are pretty blunt, sneaking in plenty of tidbits (though a quick Google search couldn't confirm the social security check allegation) that paints the home shopping networks in an awful light. It's something the show has done countless times, but it still works, running just the right length and being just vicious enough to work.
Over in the B-plot, Cartman decides to start his own shopping channel, blatantly called Old People’s Shopping Channel and modeled perfectly on the “real” shopping channels. These secondary storylines can either add an extra oomph to the episode’s commentary or, on rare occasions, undermine it. Here, the Cartman storyline does neither, instead marking time for a few gags including Cartman’s “Do you want to fuck me? Because you just did!” phrases he used relentlessly in last season’s “HumancentiPad.” Nothing really happens, even when his storyline merges with Stan’s in a sweatshop. The jokes are funny but, again, it feels like more could have been done with this, especially if it's trying to counter-balance Stan's plot.
Speaking of Stan, he's made his way to a sweatshop in India. After his initial tirade, he's bounced from target to target, trying to track down who’s ultimately responsible for taking advantage of senior citizens and has wound up in this sweatshop, blaming the children working in the sweatshop, a humorous though not all that surprising twist. The episode trails off, choosing to show the entire sweatshop-to-home-shopping-network-to-elderly-consumer-to-gift-to-cash-4-gold-store-to-smelting-and-back-to-sweatshop life cycle in a rather straight-forward nature, rather than going in for the kill. The fun vocal soundtrack lends it an absurdist element, but beyond that, the show fails to land punches like it has in previous similar moments, like getting big laughs from simply presenting the facts about Mormons and Scientology (though those topics feature such strange myths it’s hard not to hit the target). Instead, we go to another semi-humorous, semi-poignant scene in which Stan gives his grandfather a photo of Grandpa and Patches the dog in a frame made by the sweatshop kids only to have Grandpa, forgetting he gave Stan the bolo tie in the first place, describe the tie as “fucking gay as fuck.”
The show tacks on one last bit at the end in which we return to Dean’s show and, after a few more callers pick up Stan’s previous urging, Dean does, in fact kill himself which, while off-screen, does splatter blood on his rotating display of jewelry. The moment is meant to be shocking and funny, but it falls flat, unable to deliver any sort of significant payoff. Dean, and by extension the home shopping networks, are never quite properly vilified to make this moment worthwhile. If anything, it undermines the scene with Stan and his grandfather that comes before it which would have served as a more fitting ending.
That’s not to say the episode didn’t have its moments. There were plenty of lines that made me laugh, and even when he’s just serving up a skimpy B-plot with some swear words, Cartman’s always entertaining. But the episode falls short of previous efforts at social commentary, including last week’s episode, because the target doesn’t seem all that vital, particularly to the show’s key demographic. (Or maybe I’m underestimating our readership’s interest in home shopping network scams; I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments below.)
Instead, the episode goes after a flabby, nebulous target and there’s not much grist to take from that grind. Maybe that’s why that final scene didn’t connect with me: because it didn’t feel earned like similar moments in past episodes were earned, trying to force something, anything, out of a topic that’s not going to land with its core audience anyway. After 16 years, the show has had plenty of missteps, and as far as those missteps go, this is hardly an egregious one. But I can’t help but hope for some other major crisis or topic more in the show’s wheelhouse to crop up to give the writers a chance to really dig in their claws and splatter some real blood on the walls again.
- “You should be saving it for when you die. That’s our money!”
- “It’s a replica of the bolo tie worn by King Henry the Fifth.”
- Dean’s explanation of “faux” is pretty great.
- “Oh, I’m an asshole for doing math.”
- Of course Butters is Cartman’s sign flipper.
- When Cartman talks to his customer and immediately delves into his “Do you like to fuck little boys?” routine, I admit I guffawed. What makes it even funnier than the similar lines in “HumancentiPad” is the pure salesman glee with which he delivers the line.
- “There’s an old Hindu saying: He who smelt it, dealt it.”
- Has the fact Stan’s grandfather has Alzheimer’s been mentioned before tonight? While it wouldn’t surprise me if they did, I honestly can’t remember and certainly adds a layer of poignancy to Stan’s interaction with him.
- It’s a shame Tebow was never tackled (GET IT??) by the show while he was a Bronco. But Tebow is everywhere so there’s still time, I suppose.