Thus far into this season, one thing I’ve noticed is the way the show has been less centered on the four main characters. With the exception of “Raising the Bar,” Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman haven’t been the main focus in this half of the season. And in “Bar,” when they were, there were plenty of other ancillary characters involved. Not that this is a bad thing. Like The Simpsons, the South Park universe has expanded to include a plethora of hilarious characters. And like The Simpsons (yeah, yeah, Simpsons did it, I know), these fleshed out characters have become just as much a part of the show as the core four and have helped keep the show fresh (Randy Marsh alone has given us miles of comedy). Still, the absence of the core characters has been nagging at me a bit, and it feels like there’s only so much quality the writers can squeeze out of episodes where they are largely absent.
Butters has always been one of my favorite characters on the show, the face of naiveté and undying enthusiasm in the face of horrendous circumstances. He’s had plenty of time in the spotlight and his own episodes, as well as his own tropes within the show, namely always getting grounded by his parents. This background is what makes the angry Butters we see at the beginning of the episode so, well, shocking. But it’s also pretty great in that the criticism Butters levels at the other kids is spot-on and reflects what a kid like Butters would actually feel if he had been treated the way those boys treat Butters. From this outburst comes the revelation that Butters likes Kenny the most and, actually, is Hawaiian. Allegedly.
Everything about the premise, from the way Butters’ father pronounces the word “Hawaii” to the idea of him having to do a walkabout, is ridiculous in exactly the way you’d expect from a Butters episode. And the revelation that Butters isn’t actually Hawaiian but that his parents are part of a group of people who regularly visit Hawaii and co-opt the culture is also ridiculous and exactly what you’d expect, while also setting the stage for some patented satire of cultural co-opting in general. Because those people are horrible and perfect for mocking.
But then the episode slowly unravels. It doesn’t go fully off the deep end, and there have certainly been worse episodes of the show. But after a great run of episodes to start this new half-season, it’s disappointing that after a solid first act, some good gags throughout, and a good premise, the episode doesn’t live up to its potential. While Butters remains at the center of the episode, it feels like one of the weaker entries partly because it gets too far away from the characters at its center. There was promise, like Butters sinking the cruise ship with the gold ball, but nothing really materialized from there. The entire “native Hawaiian” storyline falls flat, a one-note joke that reveals itself too weak to build an entire episode around, at least with the way it’s structured here.
While, as I said at the top, the willingness of the writers to push themselves further away from the original core four has helped the series stay fresh and given it plenty of more tools to work with, this was an example of the show pushing itself just a bit too far away from the characters who make the show work so well when it’s hurtling at full speed. It’s weird to consider something like South Park “grounded,” but that’s kind of what those core four characters do. They keep the entire universe tied together, and they’re the reason the show continues to be so successful, over 15 years after its debut.
It’s almost as if the writers challenged themselves to push away from those characters as much as possible for a stretch, and with the way this episode unravels, it feels like they reached their limit. Without the central four there, it feels like the threads of a promising episode were lost; all the great previous episodes with Butters at the center were still tied back to the core characters in some context. Even Kenny’s presence here is largely trivial until the end, and even then, it could have been anyone “saving” the day.
Again, this wasn’t even a “bad” episode by South Park standards, but it was a disappointing one, and sometimes, that’s worse than being just plain bad.
- Since I started the review by talking about how much I love Butters, I have to own up that my favorite Butters plot is either when he was Paris Hilton’s new pet in “Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset” or taking a throwing star to the face in “Good Times With Weapons.” Oh, and his plot in “AWESOM-O” was great, too. Yeah, Professor Chaos is pretty good and had a lot of meta going on in it, but I just enjoy Butters much more when he’s helpless and going with the flow (and, yes, I know “AWESOM-O” doesn’t fit into that; maybe it’s Cartman dancing like Britney Spears).
- Butters being an uncharacteristic bully in the beginning? Great and not even the first time. I was banging around the Internet and came across this great breakdown of everything Butters, which points out that in a very early episode (“Hooked On Monkey Fonics”), Butters was a “mean-spirited bully.”
- The Angry Butters voice is awesome. I want a soundboard.
- Butters’ innocence also makes for the perfect dissonance for when he drops horrible lines like “like an emo chick on her period.”
- It was pretty clearly telegraphed by Butters’ father that, no, they’re not Hawaiian.
- “Stupid BEN AFFLECK.”
- The birther joke was a great, subtle jab.
- The Elvis ghost? Kinda goofy and weird and funny in a way but also sort of underutilized.
- Loved the voiceover in the letters from Kenny to the boys back home.