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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

South Park: "Fatbeard"

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We’ve reached the end of another South Park half-season, and not a moment too soon for me, anyway. I think if I had to spend another Wednesday night rehashing the plot of, applying critical appraisal to, and then assigning a mostly meaningless (yet curiously provocative) letter grade to another episode, I was going to puke my balls out of my mouth.

Okay, not really, but sometimes I do feel like trying to apply any sort of critical standards to South Park sort of sucks all the fun out of it. But we’re at the halfway point, and so I will dutifully put on my fancy, peaked velvet critic’s hat and say that this season has been relatively strong so far, as even the slight missteps (I’m thinking mostly of “Fishsticks,” although I kind of understand Josh’s gripes about “Pinewood Derby”) have merely committed the crime of being only sort of funny—which is more than you say for 90 percent of the shit that passes for comedy on the air. Granted, there haven’t really been any “new classics” (though “Margaritaville” came close), nor anything even on par with last season’s standouts like “Major Boobage,” “Super Fun Time,” or “Breast Cancer Show Ever,” but I still feel like South Park hasn’t quite reached the “take it behind the barn” stage yet. For a show that seems to have just about reached its plateau in terms of fleshing out characters (for comparison, think about how much The Simpsons expanded on Springfield in its first 12 years), I’d say that’s pretty remarkable.

Anyway, so let’s talk pirates: They’re so hot right now. Unfortunately, they’re not the super cool, endlessly marketable kind, but rather the everybody’s-dying-of-AIDS, taking-anyone-hostage-just-to-stave-off-starvation another day kind, i.e. the kind you don’t make movies about. (Or maybe you do, but usually Steven Seagal is involved and it doesn’t end well for them.) But Cartman is only into bold, USA Today-like highlights when it comes to comprehending current events, so he thinks the time is nigh to form a Pirate Club for everyone who isn’t “Jewish, Mexican, or ginger” and who wants to leave their boring, rule-laden life behind for all the waterfalls and shipwreck lagoons and buried treasure to be found in northern Africa.


Somehow he convinces Clyde, Kevin, and Butters to come along, plus world-weary little Ike, who’s bored with “the monotony of the middle class” and is apparently as sick as I am of Susan Boyle being held up as some sort of pop-culture messiah, like it’s somehow a miracle that she can sing, all because she’s not as attractive as most people who are famous for singing. (Seriously, enough already. She’s talented and bully for her and all that, but until her voice starts making blind people see or cures Farrah Fawcett’s ass cancer, you can stop it with the YouTube tributes and round-the-clock updates, okay? But I digress….)

Even though the main joke of this episode—that real-life pirates are somehow even more undesirable than Orlando Bloom—was obvious the second Cartman uttered the word “Somalia,” I really think the pacing was what sold “Fatbeard” for me. Rather than a cobbled-together collection of gags, everything progressed very organically, and this week South Park really lived up to that “character-based comedy” credo that the show inadvertently gave itself back when it glove-slapped Family Guy. Cartman’s refusal to break from his Long John Silver impersonation and the way he eventually turned all the Somalis into pirate caricatures complete with “Skull Coves,” peg-legs, and drinking songs (and a great one at that) felt totally earned, as did the payoff of having Kyle finally show up in Somalia, only to discover that Cartman really did get to live out his fantasy—albeit in the direst, most toxic waste-infested place on Earth. (By the way, how awesome was the screaming radioactive fish?) I also enjoyed Butters’ enthusiasm for rapin’ and plunderin’, and Kevin’s insistence on bringing a lightsaber—or, as the French say, “le lightsaber terrible!”—was a nice callback to the episode when the kids were all gaga for Lord Of The Rings and Kevin showed up dressed as an Imperial stormtrooper. It’s nice to see that South Park still cares about that sort of stuff, rather than just trying to dream up contrivances to get Kanye West and Carlos Mencia in the same room so one of them can get brutally murdered.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an SP episode without some sort of “lesson”: Here, Butters and Ike learn that a pirate’s life maybe isn’t for them, because it’s really just the suicidal act of a desperate man, and there’s nothing like that going on back home—not for white, middle-class fourth-graders, anyway—so they end up feeling like total assholes for taking everything us Americans have for granted. A natural enough place to end up, although a bit heavy-handed in the show’s usual way, and I’m guessing the attempt at creating sympathy for Somali pirates may strike someone out there as “controversial,” particularly with Abduhl Wali-i-Musi just now arriving on American shores to stand trial, and all those reports about how many of the most dangerous Somali raiders actually live quite the lavish life. Then there’s the matter-of-fact, “kill everyone but the white ones” way the Navy SEALs take all of them out as a grim sort of punchline, which one could definitely read as another de facto indictment of the U.S.’s bulldozer approach to foreign policy…

But whatever; you guys have six months to debate the finer points, and I’m all “last day of school” up in this bitch, with rapin’ and plunderin’ of my own to get to. I’ll just say that I thought this was a nice note to go out on: A character-based, Cartman-centric episode, just the right touch of topicality, no clunky B-story, and gags that felt generated by the plot rather than the other way around. Definitely one of the best of the season thus far; here’s hoping it comes back this strong in six months.


Grade: A-

Stray observations:

- How many times did we hear the word “rape” tonight? It felt like a lot.

- Seriously, how awesome was that screaming radioactive fish? I’m laughing just thinking about it.


- Are the French ever gonna live down World War II?


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