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“Sponsored Content” works as both ruthless satire and riveting sci-fi

Illustration for article titled “Sponsored Content” works as both ruthless satire and riveting sci-fi
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In recent years, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have shown an increasing interest in their long game, developing stronger continuity between South Park’s storylines and wrapping everything up with multipart finales. But there’s never been anything quite like season 19. Over the past seven episodes, the show’s creators have juggled multiple narratives all under the singular umbrella of PC culture, or outrage culture, or trendy progressivism, or whatever you want to call it. For once, all the satire can be traced back to that one central idea, even though the targets have ranged from self-proclaimed social warriors to Donald Trump to Yelp reviewers to body-shamed celebrities. I’m tempted to say that this thematic unity makes South Park the Comedy Central equivalent to The Wire, although maybe that’s stretching it. Then again, maybe not.

Considering all the disparate threads that need to come together for this year’s grand final statement, it’s no surprise that the season finale is a three-parter. Besides giving Parker and Stone the chance to lob some last-minute barbs at the PC Bros and others, the trilogy format also allows them plenty of time to use genre-fiction conventions to their advantage, resulting in a conclusion that functions both as ruthless satire and riveting science fiction.


Of course, any good sci-fi epic needs a hero, and who better to stand up to PC Principal (I’m once again calling him PCP from here on out) than Jimmy Valmer? Unlike PCP, who disingenuously takes up various causes as a way to fit in and make himself feel superior to others, Jimmy has adhered to an unwavering moral code ever since we first met him, despite a brief detour into steroid use. The two soon become rivals after PCP tries to censor the word “retarded” in Jimmy’s scrappy student newspaper, Super School News. It’s a bold move on the show’s part, as “retarded“ has long cycled off the euphemism treadmill and is generally accepted as being insensitive towards people with mental disabilities. It’s particularly shaky territory for anyone who grew up in the ’90s and early 2000s (like myself), since, for a decade or so, it was presented to us as a socially and educationally acceptable term, popping up frequently in text books and PSAs.

So what are Parker and Stone’s exact feelings on the word? In the world of “Sponsored Content,” it doesn’t matter. They’re not endorsing rampant use of the term, only the paper’s right to say it. As Jimmy points out, the article in question is an op-ed written by a first-grader who found “retarded” to be the most accurate description (in his own limited vocabulary) when talking about the school’s lunch policy. Jimmy’s defense of the kid is more about free speech than specific words, a statement on the various college newspapers that have come under fire for supposedly intolerant content as of late. Whether or not the material is actually insensitive varies from paper to paper, not to mention reader to reader. South Park’s outlook on the matter is much simpler, perhaps even reductive in the eyes of some viewers: Free speech means being exposed to points of view you don’t always agree with, points of view you may even find hateful. Just as it’s everyone’s right to publish their opinion (especially in an op-ed piece), it’s everyone else’s right to speak out against it. But it’s no one’s right to silence it.


Jimmy has a similar stance, so he rejects PCP’s efforts to shut him up, as well as the policy that the principal gets to check every issue of the paper for potentially offensive material before it goes to print. Jimmy decides to go on his own renegade paper route (atop an oversized Thomas the Tank Engine, no less), soon garnering considerable readership around town due to Super School News’ unflinching eye and lack of advertising. Specifically, it doesn’t assault the reader with ads dressed up as articles, as Stephen Stotch observes in a brilliant Vertigo-like sequence that captures how maddening yet addictive sponsored content (and the internet in general) can be. For the record, every site I write for runs ads or publishes sponsored content (usually both), so I understand it’s just the name of the game these days. And as readers, we’re all just as responsible for its existence as the media outlets who publish it.

But Jimmy doesn’t see why it has to be that way, and things really take off for him after he, Timmy, and several other kids get invited to a kegger at the PC Bros’ frat house that’s supposedly celebrating people with disabilities. Predictably, the students get completely ignored by the fraternity members, who are more concerned with using their fake empathy as a means of getting women to sleep with them. The scene becomes especially disturbing after they make their partners sign literal consent forms that permit them to start “crushing pussy” (the bros’ words, not mine) without any moral or legal ramifications. It’s the show’s latest instance of lampooning those who think that put-on sensitivity gives them a license to kill, taking aim at guys who think their own exaggerated compassion outweighs the fact that they consistently act like dogs towards the opposite sex. Jimmy observes the whole thing silently, and picks up even more traction when he runs a front-page exposé the following morning, headlined “PC Stands for Pussy Crushing.”


It’s at this point that the episode backs away from the podium a bit and veers into full-blown, bug-nuts sci-fi territory. Suddenly, there are several mysterious parties interested in Jimmy, starting with a GEICO representative who wants to give him millions of dollars to write some sponsored content for the auto-insurance behemoth in his paper. When Jimmy maintains his journalistic integrity, the man slowly pulls a gun from his suitcase. “They said you’d be tough,” he says ominously in a line that echoes so many movies before it. Luckily, Jimmy’s saved Terminator-style by Officer Barbrady, who’s become some kind of bumbling super soldier for the organization we saw him interact with at the end of last week. It turns out they’re impressed by Jimmy’s exceedingly rare ability to distinguish between sponsored content and actual news articles, an ability that shows even more exceptional power when he’s able to detect that Leslie, the little girl silenced by PCP last week, is a living, breathing advertisement. “Does she know she’s an ad?!!” demands Jimmy in the same urgent fashion as Rick Deckard when talking about replicants.

Parker and Stone purposely end on a cliffhanger, but because they’ve been so patiently planting the seeds for a twist that ties everything together all season long, I find myself more invested in the story itself than usual. It also helps that everything’s played with a chilly sterility—Jimmy’s conversation with Leslie feels reminiscent of Blade Runner, Ghost In The Shell, A.I., and any number of other films involving humans and the androids among them—that feels like a true embrace of science fiction rather than a straight-up parody of it.


A lot of ground gets covered in the beginning of this final stretch, and I’m wondering how cohesively Parker and Stone (and creative consultant Bill Hader, who voices the head of the shadow collective) will be able to resolve everything in the coming weeks. For instance, it’s still not clear what PCP’s precise role is in all this—if he ends up being an advertisement as well, maybe it’s a statement on PC culture becoming commodified just like so many other political/cultural movements. Right now though, I’m not exactly sure how it’s connected to the concept of sponsored content, so it’ll be interesting to see if Parker and Stone can present a valid argument and stick the landing. Also, how do Mr. Garrison—more Trump-like than ever as he insults his opponent Hillary Clinton’s looks and promises to fuck all Syrian refugees to death—and Caitlyn Jenner fit into the grand scheme of things? And what about the war ominously mentioned by Nathan? Whose side is everyone on? I want answers! And that’s a good thing, because for the first time in a while, I’m left equally as interested in South Park’s raw plot mechanics as I am in its comedy.

Stray observations

  • I loved how the episode began with various students running away from PC Principal like he was Godzilla or the monster from Cloverfield.
  • With Nathan happily playing the token disabled person for the school paper in a way that Jimmy never could, does this mean we’ll also see the return of Mimsyyy?(!!!)
  • The exchange between Jimmy and Leslie also had shades of Ex Machina and Akira. Did anyone think it was parodying a specific scene from any of the aforementioned films?
  • “That word makes my heart piss its pants.”
  • “S-s-suck my dick, PC Principal!”
  • “Ad got me. Ad got me, Sharon.”

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