[This is a review of the season 20 premiere of South Park. There will be SPOILERS.]
Thanks to its unique production methods, South Park is the one animated series on television that has the ability to respond to news and current events in way most other animated shows couldn't dream of. It should come as no surprise, then, that in the lead-up to the show's season 20 season premiere, it has decided to look into the recent protest of San Francisco 49's quarterback Colin Kaepernick and hinted that the premiere will also focus on the upcoming presidential election. While those two topics aren't exactly breaking news, it's a good bet that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone will find plenty to skewer from recent events to provide the sort of laughs the series is known for.
Last season, the series did what it hadn't done before: adopt a serialized narrative that told a larger story from start to finish. While season 19 still managed to have episodes and subplots that felt one-off, the series' increased focus on a single story line was in many ways exactly what it needed in order to remind viewers of the show's cultural relevancy in this time of Peak TV. Approaching two decades on the air, the change in structure afforded South Park the chance to experiment with and explore one large idea instead of many, many little ones – though that didn't stop the little ideas from frequently popping up throughout the 10-episode season.
Season 20 starts things off with 'Member Berries', which sees Mr. Garrison still campaigning, while the aforementioned look at the National Anthem results in the song getting a contemporary rewrite. Listening to the song sung by the parents in South Park in a recently released clip, it's clear that Parker and Stone are continuing with South Park's long history of using absurdity to let some air in as far the discussion of complex issues is concerned. In this case, the song sung by Randy and the other dads uses derogatory slang for cops while at the same lamenting the fact that their stuff was stolen and they'd like help getting it back. It's the sort of farcical take on a current issue that fans of the series are familiar with and eager to see more of.
'Member Berries' revolves around a two-pronged story line that first aims to skewer the obsession with nostalgia, demonstrating how too much of it can lead down a dark path, as the cute little member berries go too far back in the "member when?" game and start sounding like the relative you quietly unfriend on Facebook and steer clear of during family functions. The actual berries steer this B-plot around the idea of the government asking J.J. Abrams to reboot the National Anthem that takes solid aim at the notion of reboots and popular culture's dependence on sentimental familiarity to help sell its products.
But it also serves to underline what sort of attention is being paid to Kaepernick's protest. South Park's handling of the National Anthem protest sees Parker and Stone take issue with the idea that, for some, the problem is how an individual responds to a song like the National Anthem, rather than the much larger issue Kaepernick is actually attempting to bring attention to. As South Park is concerned, the discussion over whether or not someone should stand during a song has overshadowed the much more important issue of racism, which it deftly points out in a funny opening sequence where people are simply watching sporting events to see who sits and who stands during the anthem. The moment serves as a solid opener that helps push the story further into the national election and what seems to be more of an ongoing plot about Kyle's dad trolling women and girls on the internet.
Structurally, 'Member Berries' continues what South Park started in season 19. The episode makes good use of its intimation of an ongoing, serialized story. The reveal that Kyle's dad is behind the trolling everyone blames Cartman for is certainly an unexpected and funny (if off putting) joke, but it's also an example of how the series can allow larger story lines to build more slowly, for the show to stretch an idea and really mine it for both laughs and significance.
In that sense, 'Member Berries' gets more out of what it sets up than what it responds to. The election between a "Giant Douche" and a "Turd Sandwich" is sort of old hat for the series by now – considering how many elections the series has been around to lampoon. And while it gets some decent jokes out of turning Mr. Garrison into a proxy for Donald Trump, it's the deception of Kyle's dad and Cartman's insistence that there's going to be a gender war that give the episode its legs. That might have something to do with the relative distance from the presidency and the show's central characters, but it also might have something to do with the reducing the candidates down to the aforementioned descriptors. It's almost as though South Park is showing its interest in satirizing yet another election by being deliberately reductive.
That has the effect of making the other plot far more interesting and entertaining. South Park will always be good at throwing zingers at politicians and celebrities, but by placing so much emphasis on a larger story of online harassment, it might find it doesn't need to rely on familiar tricks as much, no matter how comforting their familiarity may be.
South Park continues next Wednesday @10pm on Comedy Central.
Photos: Comedy Central