Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of South Park. It shaped a lot of my views and how I see the world, and helped me realize how much garbage I had been fed into believing by a dangerously bigoted culture I lived in.
But oh my god there is so much crap in this show we desperately need to talk about.
Started in 1997, born from a crappy little short where Santa and Jesus beat each other up, South Park is a cultural juggernaut with soon to be twenty seasons under its belt. It’s the brainchild of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, two guys with a talent for pointing out bullshit and making great comedy out of it, plus an understanding of storytelling not a lot of their peers seem to have. I really do respect these two in a lot of ways. What they’ve managed to accomplish is kind of incredible, I love their non-South Park work a good deal, and I really want to see The Book of Mormon.
At the same time, South Park needs to be seriously looked over again because it’s starting to become a massive, massive problem. Yes, I am partly referring to seasons 18 and 19, which may two of the worst seasons of anything I have ever seen in my entirely life, and I sat through the entirety of the third season of Heroes. I have seen Hell, people.
Seasons 18 and 19 were when Matt and Trey became everything they used to insult. These two seasons were not only terrible attempts to try and remain relevant, but that last season also somehow became a giant shitting upon the “millennial” generation as the two writers whined and whined about things they clearly didn’t bother to research. Do not even get me started about that garbage “safe spaces are bad” episode I swear to fuck. The social commentary became slapdash and poorly thought out, and the two lost a huge amount of their self-awareness. On top of that, for a show that used to be so on the edge of social issues like gay marriage, they sure do seem perfectly fine with making terrible trans jokes where a trans woman rapes a child because ahahaha he didn’t expect her to have a penis! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHHAHAH
But what’s interesting is that the more time passes, the more I look back at old episodes and realize this isn’t exactly new behavior. Patterns were already forming early on that would lead to the two becoming shadows of their former selves, but I rarely see people who actually like the show talk about these messages and moments. Most everyone really tries to defend the show, and I used to, but fuck that now. South Park has somehow become a cultural milestone for a whole mess of bigots, climate change deniers, and a ton of people you’d never expect to actually like what the show is commonly seen as.
To figure out how the hell this happened, I’ll be going back over every season of the show to pick out every single bad episode, and break down why they’re bad and the kind of crap they’re saying. Needless to say, the entirety of seasons 18 and 19 will be discussed. Except Freemium Isn’t Free. That one was fine. The rest is irredeemable. But before we get there, we need to go over the seventeen other seasons. So strap in, because it’s time to start South Park Going South, and the first episode to examine will be season one’s ninth episode, Mr. Hankey The Christmas Poo.
I don’t have too many issues with season one, truth be told. Besides the cliffhanger finale (and I will have words for that), the first appearance of Mr. Hankey is the only one that really stands out as genuinely bad to me. That’s not because of Mr. Hankey, though. He might actually be the best part of the episode, or rather the commercial for the Mr. Hankey kit.
The episode is about the elementary school putting on a Christmas pageant, with Jesus’ birth and all, and the Jewish Kyle is cast as Joseph, which his mother has an understandable problem with. Kyle feels alienated for not celebrating Christmas, and the town is divided on religion being present via displays at city hall and at the school. Tying all of this together is Mr. Hankey, the Christmas poo, a character the episode pretends for a long while is just a figment of Kyle’s imagination for a series of gags where it looks like he’s tossing poop at people.
The Mr. Hankey stuff works pretty well in a darkly comedic way. I’ll admit, I get a sick chuckle out of everyone thinking Kyle wants to make them eat feces. The problem is the commentary in this episode is both confused and toothless. The episode starts off pretty strong focusing on Kyle. They do a good job of how alienating it feels to be someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas at Christmas time, and Matt and Trey have always had a talent for capturing the dialog of children. What I mean by this is that they really capture the innocent but callous discussion and reactions these kids have, still forming identities and views and just sort of accepting the way things are because they haven’t had a reason to question it yet. Kyle being alienated is well done.
However, the episode tries to do too much and loses itself in the topic of censorship. This is kind of important, because Matt and Trey are massive champions of free expression. It’s one of the few constants in their works for a long while, for both good and ill. This episode really establishes Kyle’s mom, making her an angry woman who fights battles over culture when she sees an injustice. Now, you’d think this type of character would be an avatar for the two’s views, since they’ve made such a name being culture critics, but no. Kyle’s mom is almost always the antagonist whenever she has a major role in a story, as she is here when her (perfectly founded) complaints lead to the ruining of the Christmas pageant, as it gets more people to talk about what offends them and the play being turned into bizarre, meaningless performance art with a score by Philip Glass.
Which I weirdly like nowadays.
Kyle’s mom is a character that really confuses their point in the episode. They’re trying to do an All in the Family sort of thing, where they present the two main sides of a given issue and let the viewer mostly decide for themselves. The conflict is wrapped up with Mr. Hankey making a speech about the true meaning of Christmas, not really soapboxing about censorship but just putting things aside for one day in the spirit of the season. But it’s really clear Matt and Trey are fully on the anti-censorship side of things, and Kyle’s mom is not a human but a strawman. You can’t take her seriously at all. Mr. Garrison is also a strawman, being so ridiculously oblivious of other religious beliefs, but he doesn’t get nearly as much focus after the opening scene. His only other two notable lines of dialog can be replaced by any other random character. As a result, only the side Kyle’s mom takes gets any real vitriol thrown at it.
This is pretty important, because a major pattern we’ll be seeing in this series as it goes on is how reliant on strawmen Matt and Trey are, plus just how much their siding with free expression seems to blind their understanding of issues brought up. For now, this is the first example of them failing to really engage with this debate meaningfully or thoughtfully. To explain what I mean here, I need to bring up another favorite show off mine, American Dad.
Please, put the pitchforks away.
One of the Christmas specials for American Dad has Stan ranting about Christmas being taken out of Christmas, making him to be very clearly in the wrong. He gets mad when people wish him Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, one of the most pointless complaints a person can have. His holiday isn’t being replaced by another, vocabulary is just changed so non-Christmas celebrating individuals don’t feel like they’re wrong for having different beliefs and don’t get alienated. One character even addresses it when a tree is taken down in the town square, understanding that all this Christmas being thrown around could be uncomfortable for non-celebrators.
Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo falls a bit more on Stan’s side for completely different reasons. It does point out the challenges of being Jewish at Christmas, but it also makes a joke out of everyone complaining, showing it as some sort of problem with society today. It’s a shot at the boogyman of “PC Culture,” aka not being a fucking dick. You see assholes complain about this sort of thing all the time, mistaking free expression for freedom from consequences. Here, Matt and Trey are simply defending the status que because they seem to think there’s no reason to make changes.
This is interesting, because Matt and Trey aren’t really religious. They’re huge critics of religion, but also of Atheism and the like. If they have a religion, they’ve never really expressed it. The religious aspect of the debate doesn’t interest them, just that those complaining are seen as destructive because they fall on a side of censorship. Their attempts at being even handed don’t work for this reason, making the ending where Kyle’s dad, one of the offended parties, claps at Mr. Hankey’s hollow speech feel poorly thought out. That speech also doesn’t address the problems brought up in the episode, just asking the characters forget the argument for the holiday. It’s just a frustrating note to end on.
This isn’t a particularly bad episode. Its worst sins come from the confused messages and overall boring series of events in the episode proper. Except the Mr. Hankey commercial, of course.
This is more an establishing of the major issues that will pop up in the two’s work in the future. Just kind of surprised looking back that the talking piece of shit wasn’t the biggest problem with this episode.
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