South Park’s mid-season premiere opened with a professional football game. For about 30 seconds it seemed like they’d done the impossible. Had they turned around a replacement refs episode in like 40 hours? The answer? Not really. But they did manage to sneak in a scene where one ref calls a touchdown, the other calls a safety, and the side judge rules that it was actually a field goal. It was a lucky week to do a football episode, and South Park did the best thing possible: they acknowledged the real life situation within the context of the story that they had likely intended to tell all along. They didn’t dwell on the refs and the calls and it worked. They used the joke, and they moved on. South Park is masterful at restraint when it wants to be.
“Sarcastaball” is actually about concussions, our obsession with talking about the safety and mental health of the players, whether children or professionals, and what we actually think we might be able to do about making the game safer. In a fit of rage after hearing that South Park Elementary has banned kickoffs, Randy Marsh takes a stand at a PTA meeting, but he’s so exacerbated that he can only be sarcastic. During his rant about the “genius new rule,” he proposes a game where the kids wear tin foil helmets, bras, and basically hug and compliment each other while running a balloon down the field. He names it Sarcastaball. The school administrators go for it, and everything begins to spiral out of control. You know the drill by this point. Randy even becomes the Sarcastaball coach of the Denver Broncos.
The concussion angle is timely enough, but it’s basically just a framing device. After a summer of watching older episodes, it suddenly seems less compelling to focus on the “issues” that they choose to use. South Park isn’t always commenting on some social or political issue. Sometimes it is really just a plot device. What’s great about this episode isn’t any impassioned call to reason about concussion hysteria. It’s that the kids actually seem to like Sarcastaball.
The adults fail to notice of course, since most have drifted so deeply into their own sarcasm trap. Eventually, every conversation, every interview, and every offhand comment becomes sarcastic. to the point where it’s so normalized that it’s confusingly indistinguishable from sincerity.
We’ve seen this formula in South Park many times before, but it works. Divide the kids and the parents, not the boys. It’s actually great when everyone is just having fun, when Cartman’s not off creating ridiculous schemes, and when they’re actually being nice to Butters. They’re wonderfully oblivious to everything the adult world is going crazy about. When the kids are presented as kids, complete with knowledge gaps and blind trust (like their complete disinterest in the porn in “The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers”), it usually works to heighten the comedy of the parents going off the rails.
Oh and don’t worry, Butters’ “Creamy Goo” isn’t meant to be subtle. The entire third act is devoted to making that abundantly clear. Yes, it’s what you think it is. Yes, they start selling it as an energy drink. And yes, Tom Brady drinks a quart of it.
Though the Creamy Goo thread wasn’t the strongest, “Sarcastaball” was a solid episode and a great entry into the second half of Season 16. Cuddle up!
Lindsey Bahr is a writer living in LA.