There are “controversies”—debates that are kind of dumb to begin with—and there are Controversies—the debates that define who we are as a populace in the 21st Century. South Park episodes like “About Last Night…” so perfectly satirize the idiocy of people taking something too seriously. And then there’s tonight’s episode, “World War Zimmerman,” which takes on the national debate over something very visceral and real: the acquittal of Neighborhood Watch vigilante George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. And what results is one of the better episodes of the show tackling a Controversy in a long time.
While tonight’s episode takes on the Drudge/Breitbart-fueled fear-mongering of riots and the "get over it" attitude in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, it does so by using Cartman’s World War Z nightmares as a pop culture touchstone. After all, South Park sends up pop culture so much, it makes sense, as does the blatant ridiculousness around Cartman’s poem/song (shades of “Accidental Racist”). It also serves to soften the message insomuch as South Park is a comedy and there’s nothing funny about Trayvon’s death. There will be plenty of people who, regardless of what they think of the show, will say anything related to this case is "too soon." So, sure, use a zombie move to make fun of the more dumbfounding reaction to the acquittal of the man who needlessly killed an unarmed teenager.
If there’s a weakness to the basic premise of the episode (well, besides the "They WENT THERE?" aspect for some), it’s that World War Z isn’t going to be a very prolonged pop culture touchstone; it’s too ephemeral. Hell, the reference is on the line of feeling dated already. That’s the problem with entering into topics via pop culture references (see: the pop culture era riffing of later-era Simpsons episodes, every Shrek movie). That said, the episode still pounds home satire with some heft and manages to get in some great, silly lines. It’s a tight line to walk, but when South Park does it well, it pays off.
Despite the over-the-top silliness of things like Cartman’s rap at the pep rally and everyone misunderstanding what Cartman means by a “contagion,” there are moments that are both hilarious and still pack a wallop, the most powerful of which is when Mr. Mackey lectures Token, “you let it go, he’ll let it go, and it’ll all be fine.” In a single line, the writers nail the condescending nature of those white fear-mongerers in the hours and days following Zimmerman acquittal. (It’s the same later when Cartman goads Token into a fist bump as a means to just put the whole incident behind them, as if it’s been unfair of Token to hold a grudge.)
This is even more effective than having the general populace be in on Cartman’s plan, like the way the town overreacts to Obama’s election in “About Last Night…,” because it drills it down so specifically; it’s utilizing specific characters (albeit minor ones) to get the point across rather than going broad.
Everything comes full circle in the final act with the brutal scene in which the Army asks George Zimmerman to do what he does best: “Shoot a young African-American.” But while the scene seems outlandish in the way it treats what was a serious crime and which will invoke the most claims of being offensive, its the needling lines that ground it and give it a razor-sharp edge. As Zimmerman hugs his daughters, he, the man who just shot a random kid (well, Cartman in black face) again, laments the “needless violence.”
It’s not a perfect episode. The World War Z thing bugs me. It doesn’t have the same lasting power as, say, using World War II-era Looney Tunes to mock Osama bin Laden in "Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants." And some of the jokes that drive home the more serious points—like Zimmerman's quick receipt of justice once he shoots a white kid—lack the subtlety of the episode's best moments. But these quibbles are minor. There are moments that are as sharp as anything the show has done and even the throwaway jokes are pretty great.
South Park isn’t meant to always be a satire; it’s got a long history of some pretty great dumb-funny episodes. But when it does do satire and it hits its stride, it can be a beast. Some of those moments were brutal but it in a meaningful, impactful, and, yes, even funny way. That's what satire does when it works: It scorches. And if using a lukewarm-received Brad Pitt zombie flick proves to be the means by which we get one of the harshest (in a “good” way?) episodes of the show in a long time, then I guess I can live with that.
- Okay, so that got real deep. Apologies to the “I like the dick-and-fart jokes!” crowd.
- I neglected to mention this in my recap of the first episode of the new season but I really dig the cool new 3D intro.
- “Fist bump, bro.”
- Mr. Garrison using Les Miserables to teach the history of the French Revolution is another fine entry into the using-pop-culture-to-teach running jokes.
- I really want to hear the full version of the “full song” played in the car.
- Cartman’s poem seriously may top the list of Cartman’s ignorant racist moments.
- “Does that little boy have a gun?” “Get inside!”
- “Oh, wait, is this a Tesla?”
- The recurring plane crash joke got a good chuckle out of me.
- Having Jimbo be the guy to explain the “Stand Your Ground” law to Cartman works especially well given the show’s history with Jimbo and his love of automatic weapons.
- “Bump that shit, bro.” Such pinpoint condescension.
- I'm interested to hear what everyone else thought and how much you agree or disagree as this is one of those episodes that will likely have a stark separation with few people in between.