‘South Park’ Returns for Season 17 with a Strong, Unsurprisingly Topical Episode

After 16 seasons, South Park returned last night with a new episode that’s more ripped and sweet than fat and unimportant. Using the best of the show’s tools — biting satire and Cartman’s narcissism — the premiere, “Let Go, Let Gov,” meets cell phone culture and the NSA at the middle and turns the Snowden controversy into something pretty hilarious.

Since we last saw the boys, Cartman’s been tearing up the blog-o- and twitter-spheres. But when he finds out the NSA has been watching his every move, he Vines for a call to arms and joins “Shitter,” a networking tool that feeds thoughts right from your brain to the internet.

Meanwhile, on the B-plot, Butters takes Cartman’s warnings as a sign that he must atone for his sins. Butters heads to the only government agency building he’s aware of, the DMV, where he performs 1,000 “Living in a America”s, and is absolved. Born again, he spreads the word of the DMV’s judgement and mercy.

Parker and Stone start strong with Cartman. Whether exclusively talking on speakerphone, inflating his online image, or sending a message to his followers — with phone held at a proper selfie high angle, of course — Cartman kills in this episode. By the time he Snowdens his way into the NSA under the inconspicuous name of Bill Clinton, he’s pretty much sealed the main story as something really funny and entertaining.

Everyone seemed pretty happy to learn Bill Hader would be coming onboard to South Park as a writer without mentioning what an asset his impressions would be. Hader’s Alec Baldwin was probably the funniest part of the episode. Playing an egomaniacal homophobe without thumbs, Hader delivers some amazing one-liners and an outstanding Jack Lemmon joke. It might not have much to do with the plot, but, man, is it funny.

When the episode moves away from Cartman or Baldwin, things slow down. The DMV and the church really didn’t connect in a meaningful way. Butters is given some great material, particularly when ranting about Pink, but it never totally satisfies. Basically, it’s unclear what’s being roasted here and what it has to do with the NSA. The only connection Butters can make to the government is the DMV? Why? Seems more like a personal vendetta.

The show has a clear message about the hypocrisy of a culture obsessed with social media and the government reading it. This stuff works really well, especially in the show’s first act. “Let Go, Let Gov” churns out even more laughs when the NSA follows up on the mundane dinner plans of random citizens. However, it falls apart when looking for some final thoughts on the subject. Nobody cares? That feels a bit like a copout.

South Park rarely turns out a flawless episode, and “Let Go, Let Gov” is no exception. But after 16 seasons, when the show can still premiere with a solid Cartman story and some really sharp observations, I’m still inclined to give it to them. Let’s hope they can keep this momentum going for the next nine episodes.

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