One of the things South Park has always had going for it is that when the story isn't quite working or the satire is off somehow, it can just go full-bore into weirdness. This approach doesn't always work, but the weirder South Parks are often the better ones, and it's this ability to just go nuts that differentiates the show from the other big, animated success stories. The Simpsons rarely got to the levels of weirdness even a fairly sedate weird episode of South Park (like this one) goes to seemingly without trying, and Family Guy always felt forced when trying to do anything too out of the ordinary. But South Park can go from an already strange topic - locker hoarding - and end up in somewhere just to the left of Squidbillies or something. It's one of the greatest strengths the show has left to it, and the weird episodes of the show are often the best at this late date.
It's that quality that keeps "Insheeption" from being all that bad. I'm certainly not going to claim this is a great episode of this show, but it has a lot of gags that made me laugh, and that's not nothing. For example, the show may have overrelied on one or two gags, repeating them over and over and over, but at least one of those gags - the doctor explaining things while the other guy imitated the music from Inception - was consistently funny, just ridiculous enough to keep provoking laughs from me. On the other hand, the confusion of the shepherd with "sheep hoarder" never really prompted anything. It was just a dumb pun that the show kept repeating and didn't take anywhere. But that's the nature of South Park sometimes: Taking a stupid joke and extending it until it finally makes you smile, unless it doesn't, and you wonder just why the joke was there in the first place.
Tonight's central "plot," as it were, is an elaborate parody of the movie Inception, which more or less uses as its chief criticism against Inception the idea that it doesn't make any sense. I'd object rather strenuously to this idea - Inception isn't very hard to understand at all - but I liked the constant piling on of new story elements, and I liked the way the show had fun with the ridiculousness of both the dialogue of the film and the constant exposition that just got more and more bizarre and over-the-top. Sure, the show seems to be suggesting that Inception was too nonsensical to be bothered with, but it also pokes a hole in the film's labored pretensions of genius and its constant rewriting of its own rules (not to mention the exposition thing). I have to imagine even super fans of the film were able to laugh at things by the time Stan, Mackie, the shepherd, the team from Inception, a bunch of firemen, and Freddy Krueger (as well as a butterfly Randy) faced off with a psychopath Woodsy the Owl, with glowing red eyes.
Actually, maybe the show's chief criticism of Inception isn't that it doesn't make sense but that it mistakes piling more and more story elements onto the framework for complexity. It's something that works when you're in the theater, and the film keeps cutting to that shot of the van diving into the river in super slow motion, but when reduced to its most base elements for a cartoon, yeah, it does sound kind of ridiculous on its most basic level. Again, I'd caution that I really liked Inception, and I'm not sure just why the show felt the need to make fun of it, when everybody has been poking holes in the movie and laughing at it all summer, but I liked Trey Parker and Matt Stone's take on things nonetheless.
There have been times in these recent seasons of South Park when it seems like all Parker does is watch reality TV and find it somehow indicative of the Way Things Are Today. (A friend of mine actually suggested a week ago that when South Park is being produced, Parker should be forced to stop watching reality TV entirely.) At first, "Insheeption" worried me, since I thought it might head down this road with its parody of shows about hoarders, but, again, the episode found just weird enough things about hoarding shows to keep this material on the goofily satirical side of things, where it might have been heavy-handed in another episode. Stan wanting to hang on to a maggot-infested sandwich, just in case? Yeah, I'll buy that, and I'll laugh at that. And Mr. Mackie's giant office full of crap was a great sight gag too.
What I was most impressed with, though, was how these two storylines dovetailed in the end. The animation department on the show had some fun with the Mackie dreamscape, especially when portraying the Randy butterfly flitting about and sexually assaulting other butterflies (another joke that was always funny), but the real stroke of smarts here comes from the way that Mackie's trauma can't be solved just by killing the bullies that torment him as a little kid. (And it's worth pointing out how well this episode fleshes out Mackie's backstory without really calling attention to the fact that it's doing so.) Instead, he has to confront the fact that he was … molested by Woodsy the Owl. I'm sure that there will be people who cry foul about how this plot twist came out of nowhere, but to me, it was just sick enough and in keeping with the tone of the episode enough to work. It wouldn't have worked in a more normal episode, but in a weird episode? Sure.
I still don't think this was a great episode of South Park, but it was a pretty good one. There were some solid laughs throughout, and there was some fine detail work around the edges - like how the scenes where the doctors try to recruit Krueger are taken almost note for note from any movie where a retired cop has to come back for one last case or the way the doctors matter-of-factly explain that only firemen can bring ladders into dreams or the way quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has to be present for … some reason. South Park used to make its biggest splashes as a cutting-edge satire of the modern, but in recent years, it's often settled more for providing some laughs around a goofy concept. This wasn't the definitive Inception takedown the show might have come up with seven years ago, but it was so weird that it was impossible to hate.
- Sean and Josh were occupied tonight, but you'll have them back to stomp on next week.
- That Fallout: New Vegas looks kinda good!
- "I'm like the mailman!"
- "If you throw that away, I will rape you in the mouth."
- "Hey, look what's on! It's Zoom!"
- "What kind of a hoarding specialist are you? You trapped our son in his counselor's subconscious, and now, you're saying he could die in there?!"
- "If they don't, it'll be the end of Europe as we know it." "Why?" "Because."