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A Hilarious Return to Normal

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South Park has returned after a five-month hiatus with another hour-long special, conspicuously titled “South ParQ Vaccination Special.” Technically the second episode of Season 24, the special focuses on the residents of the titular podunk mountain town as the first COVID-19 vaccines begin to become available. Because it’s an episode of South Park, things quickly escalate until the entire community is at each other’s throats, with references from the past several months of the news sprinkled throughout to maintain the series’ pedigree of to-the-minute topicality. Like the previous hour-long episode “The Pandemic Special,” this vaccination special is sharp and funny, with several laugh-out-loud moments and some genuine insight into the emotional effect the pandemic has had on people. It also wants nothing more than for everyone to forget the past four years and go back to the way things were before Trump was elected, and that’s asking a bit too much of its audience.

The main story of the episode follows Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny as they try to make amends with their teacher (and ultimately the entire school) after playing a prank that causes her to walk out, allowing Mr. Garrison to take over in her place. The boys decide to sneak into Walgreens and steal some vaccines in order to lure their former teacher back to work and restore the sense of normalcy that they’ve all been craving since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, Mr. Garrison tries to return to his old life in South Park as if he never left, but finds people are unwilling to simply forget about all of the terrible things he did as President. He gets wrapped up with a local group of QAnon supporters and temporarily joins their delusional crusade as they rebrand as Tutornon and get jobs as private tutors to indoctrinate all the kids in town. The whole thing ends with a dance party at a funeral, which honestly might end up being the most accurate description of the final few months of the pandemic. (Get ready for your social media timelines to become more insufferable than usual as the vaccine continues rolling out.)

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Image via Comedy Central

South Park’s brand of smug cynicism has been a difficult pill to swallow since 2016, but as this latest special demonstrates, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone still absolutely murder at writing jokes. The duo are masters of silliness for silliness’s sake, and there are a number of times in this episode when a quick gag or goofy line reading completely leveled me. Particular standout moments include Mr. Mackey trying to bluff his way inside Walgreens, and Butters gleefully waving the American flag during a schoolyard brawl.

And, as the title of the special suggests, Parker and Stone spend a considerable amount of time ridiculing the QAnon movement using the same technique they used to poke holes in other major institutions, like Scientology and the Mormon church – by presenting the group’s core beliefs verbatim and letting them hang themselves. In one scene, the leader of South Park’s chapter of QAnon, who is named Mr. White because sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade, breaks down an innocuous phrase Mr. Garrison said to him at the grocery store to reveal a “hidden code” instructing them all to become tutors. Mr. White’s straw-grasping logic could’ve been copied directly from a QAnon message board without any embellishment or exaggeration; it’s a funny scene that would’ve been even funnier if it wasn’t so true to reality.

RELATED: ‘The Simpsons’ Renewed for 33rd and 34th Seasons — Read the Hilarious Responses from Creators and “Homer”

One of the most surprising parts of the episode comes in the final act, when Mr. Garrison and Mr. White attempt to confront the evil Hollywood elites at the center of the QAnon conspiracy theory. South Park has rarely broken format in its 24-year history, the most notable instance being the Season 7 episode “Good Times with Weapons.” Here, Parker and Stone take the show in a meta direction by inserting themselves into the episode via a narrative device similar to the one utilized in the classic Looney Tunes short “Duck Amuck.” It’s a clever gag that is totally unlike anything I’ve ever seen on South Park, and the fact that a show I’ve watched religiously since it premiered in 1997 can still surprise me is refreshing.

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Image via Comedy Central

The episode does stumble in a few places. Mr. Garrison’s return to South Park is a bit wonky, and while it ends with a superbly incisive joke about American geopolitics, the ultimate point of his storyline is to hit the reset button on the past four years, which might be the closest to a mea culpa the show will ever get next to revealing that Al Gore was right about ManBearPig all along. The Trump years made it hard to be a South Park fan; its trademark prescription of cynicism and apathy doesn’t feel as edgy or smart as it did when I was a teenager, but after living through Trump’s sustained assault on every single marginalized person in the United States, South Park’s libertarian scorn seems closer to pampered cruelty. Parker and Stone can afford to not care about anything, and ridicule those who do, because they’re the millionaire creators of one of the most popular TV shows in history. Nothing but the most extreme changes in our society are going to affect them personally. To them, the 2016 election truly was a race between a giant douche and a turd sandwich, because they had absolutely nothing to lose or gain by either candidate. Coupled with the fact that South Park’s 2016 season began with a storyline making fun of people killing themselves over online bullying, and you have a batch of episodes that are all but unwatchable now.

Mr. Garrison’s desperation to pretend the past four years never happened and go back to the way things were when everyone liked him feels a bit like the show itself pleading with us to do the same. Both “The Pandemic Special” and “South ParQ Vaccination Special” feature cameos by virtually every character in the history of the series, including Death, who hasn’t been in an episode since the very first season. It really does seem like South Park is asking me to remember all the things I love about it, and let go of the fact that it minimized and ridiculed the fear people had of the very real harm the Trump administration went on to inflict. The bottom line is, South Park is social commentary written by two extremely wealthy middle-aged white men who have been extremely wealthy for the past two and a half decades. It’s also been consistently hilarious for a quarter-century, finding new ways to reinvent itself as the years pass and mining absolute gold from its absurd cast of characters. (The way Randy has evolved to become arguably the show’s funniest character has been particularly rewarding to watch.) And I won’t lie, when Death showed up on a tricycle I popped like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin just did a run-in at my birthday party. I suppose what I’m getting at is that I’m willing to press reset if they are.

Grade: A

KEEP READING: Watch: ‘Beavis and Butthead’ Announce Their Return in New Original Film for Paramount+

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