It’s been almost two years since South Park has done a Butters episode, which probably speaks to how mindful they are of diluting the character through oversaturation. After all, there’s only so much horrible stuff the kid can happily endure before it starts to seem formulaic, as though Butters is some sort of psychological Road Runner, merrily oblivious to the traumatic anvils dangling just above his head, and always escaping unscathed in the end. His last time in the spotlight, “Butters’ Bottom Bitch,” tinkered with that formula somewhat by having Butters embrace being the bad guy, albeit in his own uniquely naïve way, and that episode’s not-coincidental airing before “City Sushi” gave me reason to revisit the dank abyss of our reviews archive (where the grades of the damned still wail, forever forgotten). And while I’ll admit that I laughed more at “Bitch” this time around—as one tends to do when they’re not preoccupied with note-taking and judging—I’ll stand by my nearly two-year-old opinion: Butters episodes are better when they play to his innocence rather than ironically off it, and I preferred the way “City Sushi” stuck to the blissfully ignorant Butters of old.
Specifically, he was a lot like the Butters of “Cartman Sucks” here, with Butters once more at the mercy of his own bewilderment over grown-up concepts like homosexuality and multiple personality disorder. To his eternal credit, Butters is just a blameless, ordinary kid—perhaps the only ordinary kid in the whole town—while the grown-ups in South Park are total fucking idiots. Particularly his parents, who remain convinced that they’re “awesome” at child-rearing, give or take an attempted drowning. And as this episode revealed, the Stotches actually seem to be getting progressively denser, considering their sudden inability to comprehend the concept of playtime—something that comprises the bulk of Butters’ existence, yet which here sparks a panic that lands him in the Center for Criminally Insane Children. (Still, I suppose it’s not every day that one of Butters’ pretend guises accidentally sets off an Asian turf war. Oddly enough it was Postman Butters—as opposed to Porn Star Butters—which just serves to illustrate that Asia is a very unpredictable region.)
And yet, while you could call this a Butters-centric outing, the trick of “City Sushi” is how its ostensible B-story—said Asian turf war, which erupts between the always-volatile City Wok owner Lu Kim and his new, unwelcome Japanese neighbor—slowly morphed into the A-story, in the process transforming Butters into little more than a bystander. (Actually, I suppose it’s hardly a “trick” considering the title, but still…) After all, for most of the episode, the battlin’ Asian stereotypes seemed like they were just intended to be an even-more-cartoonish-than-usual distraction from the darkness of the main plotline, not unlike Lu Kim’s very similar war with the Mongolians back in “Child Abduction Is Not Funny.” Of course, that’s not to say that their feud didn’t go to its own dark places, like when Lu Kim illustrates the differences between Japan and China in his “Asian Diversity” assembly by pointing to both Japan’s high suicide rates and the Nanking Massacre. (Remember: There’s no burn more ultimate than bringing up somebody’s history of mass murder and rape.) But it wasn’t until the episode was nearly over that it became clear that there were more than just the usual geopolitical rivalries at play here.
In keeping its main stories so separated, “City Sushi” cleverly never showed its hand before the big reveal: that Lu Kim was actually Butters’ MPD-afflicted psychiatrist Dr. Janus all along, and was in fact just the strongest of his many personalities contained within. It was an unexpected twist, and it dovetailed its two seemingly unrelated plotlines as masterfully as any other South Park episode has done in the past. And yet, while the surprise was genuine, and I admire the way it was executed, I’m also conflicted about how it was orchestrated, which keeps me from nudging the episode up into “A” territory. On the one hand, it was an original, character-based story—something I’m always harping on about, I know—and one that flowed together smoothly through its very funny climax, with Mr. Takayama thwarting Janus/Lu Kim’s murder plot, only to commit suicide over the shame of not recognizing Kim was actually a white guy (all while decrying the fact that he was enacting an Asian stereotype). But on the other hand, so much of "City Sushi" seemed like a setup on its way to a much larger punchline, there weren't as many laughs while it was getting there.
And because the Lu Kim/Takayama feud was reliably funny, when “City Sushi” languished it was, unusually, during the Butters storyline, which mostly just involved Dr. Janus slipping into one or more of his multiple personalities, sweeping Butters up in a jewelry heist or hostage situation, then reverting back to his normal, professional state in time to send Butters home again. There were some good scenes along the way—particularly Butters’ Paranormal Activity-inspired discovery that Dr. Janus was sneaking into his bedroom to both piss on and punch his face—but maybe it’s that Butters felt so tangential to the action that his plot never quite veered off to that dangerous, hilarious place in the way many a solid Butters episode has in the past. Or maybe it’s that Butters really wasn’t given much to do here beyond react to Janus’ wild mood swings, which meant I ended up not writing down a single one of his lines—a rarity for Butters, as he’s usually reliable for even just a throwaway.
So “City Sushi” ended up being one of those episodes that I appreciated as a whole more than often truly enjoyed in the moment, admiring it as an overall story without finding anything specific in it that I’ll still be laughing about months later out of context—not like “Vunter Slaush,” for example. Overall, it was a bit akin to its ending, which recreated the denouement of Psycho right down to having Janus/Lu Kim repeat Norman Bates’ interior monologue word-for-word: It was clever in its execution, but ultimately lacking that extra madcap sting that pushes South Park over the edge from good to great.
- Indeed, Simpsons did it: The town’s decision to let Janus go on pretending that he’s Lu Kim and essentially never speak of this again was a straight-up "Armin Tamzarian" scenario.
- I can’t decide if naming the psychiatrist after the Roman two-headed god was a wink at unsubtle character names in clunky mystery stories, or an actual unsubtle character name.
- Did you notice that Lu Kim intentionally said the word “shitty” when telling Mr. Takayama to “find another shitty town”?
- Tender Loving Medication would make a pretty good album title.
- Butters may have been left wanting, but the elder Stotch got two good lines tonight: “We’ll ground the shit out of him” and “It’s clear it isn’t our parenting—we’re awesome.”
- “Oh no, I’m the Japanese and I had a bad day—I think I’m gonna kill myself!”
- “It was sneaky, kind of like Pearl Harbor. That was a little sneaky, too. We can all be a little sneaky.”
- “You better not rub your hands together when you turn around.”
- “The multitude of our town’s Chinese—all two of them.”
- Unlike The Simpsons, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lu Kim’s real identity comes up again, if only as an aside.