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South Park has a vaccination rodeo, and Randy tries to get his Tegridy back in a strong 300th episode

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It’s been just shy of a decade since South Park’s 200th episode, and considering how much controversy that episode stirred, as well as just how perfectly it embodied the show’s irreverent style, tonight’s 300th outing had quite a bit to live up to. Thankfully, “SHOTS!!!” was more than up to the task. While it wasn’t quite as epic a story as that classic two-parter, it made up for that in spades by being the funniest episode of season 23 by a wide margin, and honestly, probably the best episode for pure comedy since Season 21’s “Sons A Witches.”

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The main story focuses on Cartman and his terrible fear of getting shots. Knowing what a tyrant he can be, seeing Cartman at his weakest can often be quite satisfying. This is best exemplified by his legendary beating at the hands of Wendy in “The Breast Cancer Show Ever,” as well as when he was tamed by Cesar Millan is “Tsst.” The thing is, while Cartman’s fear of shots reminds us that he is just a boy, the efforts he goes to avoid them are quite Herculean. When faced with a needle, Cartman essentially turns into a pig, making it impossible for the doctor to catch him—going so far, at one point, to cover himself with Crisco. Each scene of him frantically running and shrieking around the room was gleefully absurd, and gave me a solid belly laugh. But when Cartman dodges the shot over and over again, it begs the question of what, precisely, can be done about him.

Here, naturally, is where the ongoing and frustrating discourse about the safety of vaccinations comes into play. South Park doesn’t seem too interested in really litigating this conversation. Liane Cartman woodenly reads from a script about the supposed effects, while Cartman feigns concerns about immunizations making him “artistic,” but the show seems to know that the actual debate is long settled, and focuses more on handling the specific question of how to get Cartman immunized. This works to the show’s benefit; it’s far more interesting to watch the increasingly elaborate efforts to get Cartman his shots than to explain why Jenny McCarthy is a dunderhead for the 10 trillionth time.

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When the other parents at South Park Elementary don’t buy Liane’s feigned anti-vax concerns, she admits that it’s just because she can’t get her son to sit down for a shot, but also challenges them to do any better. This is a surprisingly emotional scene; while Liane’s character was initially limited to a couple of jokes (she constantly spoils her bratty son, and also she’s quite sexually active), the show has made admirable efforts to show her a sympathetic parent, who tries her best both to stand up to her son’s cruelty, while also doing what’s best for him. We saw this in “Tsst,” as well as “Human CentiPad,” both episodes where Cartman’s behavior spirals out of control even more so than usual. In this case, Cartman doesn’t appear to just be acting up; getting a shot genuinely terrifies him. In either case, though, Liane’s evolution from mere punchline to a human character just trying to be a good mom has been one of the show’s more subtle growths over the years, and it works quite well here.

When the town tries to immunize Cartman while he’s sleeping, it fails pretty quickly. Cartman wakes up, figures out what’s going on, and immediately greases himself, and bolts out the door. Desperate for help, the town calls Mesquite Murph, an elite pork wrangler who also happens to sincerely believe the science on vaccines. This character was hilariously off-the-wall in a quintessentially South Park fashion. Murph manages to entrap Cartman, but can’t quite administer the shot. This leads him to his big idea: a full-fledged vaccination rodeo, where he can immunize not just Cartman, but every single kid in town who’s afraid of needles. Classic South Park.

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While Murph is concocting his plan, Liane has to deal with the fallout of trying to trick Cartman. He’s incensed at his mother’s dishonesty, and kicks her out of the house, which, of course, he can do because he’s Cartman. With nowhere else to turn, Liane knocks on the door of Tegridy Farms, and finds a friend to confide in with Randy, who’s been struggling with family problems of his own. Despite making $300,o00 in profits from the farm, his family is fed up with him, and the way he’s compromised his principles. Randy and Liane share a joint together, and momentarily, we can’t help but wonder if the pair might have an affair. Instead, however, the pair’s heart-to-heart conversation inspires both of them to do what must be done to earn back the trust they’ve lost.

In Randy’s case, we assume that would mean working things out with Sharon, but instead, we find him reaching out to Towelie, who abandoned him in “Mexican Joker.” Realizing Tegridy Farms won’t have any tegridy without him, he agrees to stop bullying homegrowers, and to no longer sell weed to the Chinese government, who are only buying it to plant on their own citizens so they can arrest them. In this scene, Randy, at Towelie’s urging, loudly utters the line “fuck the Chinese government,” removing any doubt as to where Matt and Trey stood on this. With the show banned in China following last week’s “Band In China” (perhaps they saw it coming), they had nothing to lose, and it was nice to see Comedy Central have their back and air the line as clearly as intended. With Towelie back on board, Randy’s next objective will be making things right with the family, who have grown to hate not only him, but marijuana as well. This sets us up for some potentially heavy moments in the next few episodes. The Marsh’s marriage already fell apart once before in the excellent “You’re Getting Old/Ass Burgers” two-parter. Can they survive yet another test?

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As for Liane, she makes her way to the vaccination rodeo as fast as possible, and saves Cartman from a shot in the nick of time, receiving an accidental immunization herself. What follows here is interesting; at first it looks like Liane is beginning to genuinely worry about the effects of vaccinations, or at the very least, the fact that legally, she has no choice in the matter. But just when it looks like South Park might be starting to make a contrarian point about parental choices (one that would perhaps fit in the libertarian wheelhouse of their earlier episodes), the show makes things clear: This is simply about Liane wanting to get Cartman vaccinated her own way, not through the elaborate circus that Mesquite Murph has concocted. When we think we’re about to see Liane embrace her son, she instead screams “NO SHOT NO TOY,” calling back to an earlier moment, when she still let her son take a toy from the chest despite failing to sit for a shot. This is a cathartic moment of Liane standing firm as a parent, without the help of Mesquite Murph or Cesar Millan. Or at least it would be, if not for the surprise ending.

Just as Cartman is about to go for his shot (and he looks serious about it this time), the doctor calls him in for some bad news about his mother, who is sitting at a canvas, painting fruit. Thanks to her unintended inoculation, vaccines have indeed made her artistic. In an episode full of great gags, this was the funniest one by far. Calling back to an earlier malapropism by Cartman, and using it to set up a great plot twist is South Park at its absolute best.

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After a shaky premiere, each of the last two episodes have been better than the last, at the season now appears to be on the right track. “SHOTS!!!” was both funny, and surprisingly layered, giving us reason to empathize with every central character. Randy screwed up, but he still wants do what’s best for his family. Liane is just a mother struggling with the unexpected struggles that parenthood creates. Even Cartman—for all his antics—earns some pity here; what kid isn’t scared of just how much a shot is going to hurt? This episode gave us plenty of room to understand and relate to its characters, as well as giving us plenty of great jokes along the way. While so many of its contemporaries have gotten stale, giving viewers fewer and fewer reasons to care, South Park remains as sharp as ever. What better way could there be to celebrate 300 episodes?

Stray observations

  • As many of you noticed, I made a critical error in my review of “Band In China.” In the scene where Randy kills Pooh, I mistakenly wrote that Mickey Mouse was in the scene as well, which he clearly was not. Needless to say, I’m quite embarrassed by this. I don’t know what caused my confusion here, other than the fact that Mickey and Randy had appeared together in earlier scenes. Either way, it was a careless mistake on my part, and an insult to the readers who expect and deserve better. I sincerely apologize, and promise to be more careful and thorough from here on out.
  • As terrified as Cartman is of getting a shot, he nonetheless laughs when the doctor tells him “it’s just a little prick.” This is so perfectly in character for him, and I love it.
  • Beyond the shot itself, Cartman begins to express genuine fear of the effects of vaccinations, leading to this gem: “What if vaccines made my friend Timmy who he is? What if they made Jimmy who he is? What if they made Token who he is?”
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