Photo: Comedy Central

Has there been a comedy series whose parodies are as esoteric as South Park? Where one episode makes fun of a well-known artist like Barbara Streisand, another recreates the fight scene from the cult classic They Live shot for shot. For every takedown of a mainstream show like Family Guy, there’s an entire episode dedicated to spoofing the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit.

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An immense sense of love for the source material permeates these more obscure parodies—you need at least a minor kind of fondness for something like the R/B Hobbit to even remember it that specifically in the first place. On South Park, that fondness sometimes allows parody to become straight-faced elaboration.

Alright, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. A gerbil trying to escape a man’s ass isn’t exactly an evolution of a Hobbit trying to escape a goblin cave. What I really mean is, whenever South Park drops in an obscure reference, it doesn’t feel like Parker and Stone are making fun of the source material as much they’re borrowing elements from it to elevate their own story. The Lemmiwinks sequences in “Death Camp Of Tolerance” don’t just make for another great episode of South Park; they make for another great chapter of The Hobbit. With more bestiality jokes, of course.

This year’s Halloween episode, “Sons A Witches,” doesn’t go as large-scale with its parody as something like the show’s Scooby-Doo bid, “Korn’s Groovy Pirate Adventure.” But it does occupy the same comedic-horror space and suburban-gothic menace as specials such as The Halloween Tree and Garfield’s Halloween Adventure. The plot involves missing children; trees straight out of a dark fairytale scratch the sky. There’s plenty of autumnal atmosphere to go around. Even the main antagonist—a direct spoof of The Green Goblin from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man—manages to be somewhat frightening, if only for being an actual witch who actually wants to harm little kids.

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The villain is created during Jack and Crack Witch Week, an exclusive Halloween celebration where the men of South Park dress up like witches, congregate in the woods, and waste away the night drinking Jack Daniel’s and freebasing cocaine. But Chip Duncan, the universally agreed-upon douche of the group, ruins everything by dabbling in the dark arts. This turns him into a real-life witch who flies on a broom, lobs flaming jack-o’-lanterns at the town’s citizens, and makes off with their children in the night.

Most of the runtime recalls classic South Park Halloween episodes by honing in on macabre zaniness. The J&C parties are as sluggish, depressing, and funny as any bit of debauchery led by Randy Marsh ought to be. Later on, a sequence in the woods manages to be genuinely creepy as Cartman tries to ditch Heidi. When Chip plummets down from the sky to spirit her away, the scene honors and subverts the story of Hansel and Gretel. Here, the role of both Hansel and the evil stepmother are rolled into Cartman.

In the back half of the episode, Parker and Stone veer away from some of their past Halloween specials by entering message-of-the-week territory. As Chip continues his crimes, the rest of the witches try to separate themselves from him, insisting that their hedonism in the forest is far more harmless than his destruction and kidnapping.

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It’s an obvious commentary on the sexual assault allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein and those who have sought distance from him, despite exhibiting the same sort of behavior over the years. In the case of someone like Ben Affleck, their transgressions may not have been as numerous or widespread as Weinstein’s, but they were still born out of the same poisonous environment.

“Sons A Witches” rightfully calls out that sort of self-righteous hypocrisy—the people who view themselves as different from the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, when in reality, they’ve taken advantage of the same gross power imbalance in Hollywood and elsewhere. While getting loaded and smoking crack in the woods may be a crass metaphor for the systematic nature of toxic masculinity, it fits right into South Park’s wheelhouse of symbolism.

The witches ultimately solve their Chip problem by calling on their most powerful alumnus, President Garrison. Upon flying back into town on Air Force One, he’s able to obliterate Chip in a matter of seconds via satellite laser. It’s in these last few minutes that “Sons A Witches” fumbles, if not in morality, then certainly in story execution.

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Thematically, Garrison’s shrugged-off act of deus ex machina makes total sense. As the show’s Trump stand-in for the foreseeable future, his acts of abuse have been even more horrible than Chip’s, and that makes his God-like amount of power all the more frightening. As a candidate, then a president, Garrison has consistently treated everyone around him like shit. More accurately, he’s treated them like objects, and now he has the ability to dispose of them like objects.

Narratively, though? The move doesn’t quite work. These days, Garrison is too big a force to be brought in at the last minute, especially in an episode that’s already a metaphor for the abuse of power. Also, there’s been so much Halloween chaos up until that point, that the anticlimactic ending—however purposeful—feels tonally out of line with the rest of the otherwise strong episode. It’s another example of Parker and Stone—despite declarations of randomness in the 21st season—being unable to resist commenting on the world around them.

Stray observations

  • Alas, I was wrong. The president is Garrison as Trump, not Trump as Trump.
  • Heidi taking an overly long time to emerge from Chip’s bag is the perfect button for the B-story.
  • Is the slow zoom-in on Cartman’s face in the lunchroom a reference to The Shining? I wasn’t sure.
  • With another strong All Hallow’s Eve installment under South Park’s belt, how would you all rank the show’s Halloween episodes?
  • Because he recently used the term “witch hunt” in regards to the Weinstein allegations, I kept waiting for a Woody Allen reference that never arrived.
  • I’m disappointed that Randy’s coworker Peter Nelson doesn’t get in on the J&C fun.
  • “It’s a witch chase and shoot-‘em-up!”
  • “The whole town really is on a witch pursuit thing.”

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