Season 21 of ‘South Park’ Bounces Back After a Rocky Start
At the halfway point of South Park’s 21st season, my reaction was a bit mixed. On one hand, they gave us a brilliant look at the opioid epidemic with “Hummels and Heroin,” and Tweek’s fear of Garrison/Trump in “Put It Down” cleverly reflected the existential dread that many Americans have been feeling ever since November 9th, 2016. On the other hand, “White People Renovating Houses” was a badly botched attempt to satirize the alt-right, and it initially seemed like “Put It Down” would be the only attempt to really look at Trump this year, a topic that Trey Parker and Matt Stone had been notoriously gun-shy about. After its rocky start, the second half of season 21 would ultimately determine if the season was a success or a failure. Thankfully, while things weren’t quite perfect, the show picked up considerably in its second half and will go down as a vast improvement over season 20, and probably the show’s best work since season 18.
Since this season had so many plots going at once, let’s dissect them one by one and look at what worked and what didn’t.
Going into the season, it really didn’t seem like there was any reason for these two to still be together. Couldn’t we just assume that when Woke Cartman reverted back to his old ways, the relationship died, too? Well, I guess Matt and Trey wanted to see things through. I won’t lie, early in the season, I hated this storyline. Every scene of Cartman looking bored and disinterested when Heidi tries to talk to him was excruciating. It developed a bit more as we found out about Cartman’s abusive habits; he’d insult Heidi to his friends, then threaten to kill himself if she broke up with him. He also gaslights her by tricking her into thinking she’s eating vegan KFC then insults her more when she gains weight. What struck me about this is that while Cartman has always been evil, it’s usually been in a cartoonish way. Tricking a kid into eating his own parents or attempting to carry out the Holocaust is so out there that you almost disassociate it from reality. In this season, Cartman became evil in a very human way, and even though he’s done several objectively worse things, his behavior here was particularly disturbing.
The effect it has on Heidi is even worse. After Cartman convinces her to choose him over Kyle, she takes on all of Cartman’s worst qualities, and becomes — Mr. Mackey points out — Cartman if he could follow through. What works here is that Cartman gets his comeuppance in the best possible way. First, he struggles to deal with the monster he’s created, then, Heidi realizes she let Cartman do this to her and decides to finally break up with him for good. When he once again threatens suicide, it no longer works. Many people bring up “The Breast Cancer Show Ever” when Wendy simply beats the shit out of Cartman as a cathartic moment of Cartman finally getting what he deserved. I’ll second that, but I think this one was even more satisfying, since he suffers emotionally, rather than physically. It was the best way the story could have ended.
Kyle’s Crush on Heidi/Turning into His Mom
This thread was a bit less satisfying, though it did have its moments. What I like about Kyle’s crush on Heidi is that they avoid turning him into a Nice Guy. His concern for Heidi in her abusive relationship with Cartman and his romantic feelings for her are entirely separate thoughts. In fact, he isn’t even conscious of his feelings for Heidi until her friends drag it out of him. This works a lot better than if Kyle thought he deserved to be with Heidi for no other reason than that he’s not an asshole like Cartman.
Where it goes from there, however, is a little frustrating. Matt and Trey decide to respond to the notion that South Park’s crudeness played a role in creating the culture that led to Trump winning, with Kyle as a proxy for the people making that critique. He becomes obsessed with the nastiness of Terrance & Phillip (which has always been the South Park’s world’s version of South Park) and declares war on Canada the same way his mother did in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. I really enjoyed the touch of the boys accusing Kyle of turning into his mom as a joke and then watching it literally happen, which was quite well done.
That being said, this all plays out a bit awkwardly. Kyle accidentally blurts out that he’s mad that Heidi has turned into another Cartman, and we can extrapolate that a big part of his rage at Canada is simply a manifestation of his romantic frustration. Worse, he eggs on Trump/Garrison to the point where he actually nukes Canada into obliteration. This made the final episode a little strange; Kyle joins the boys on the quest to find the president, and while Trump/Garrison and Cartman are the clear villains, Kyle doesn’t really have a redemptive moment — likely because he simply causes too much damage for that to happen, at least not in one episode. My guess is that Kyle will have to deal with the ramifications of what he did more in season 22. That has the potential to be quite interesting, but for now, this thread lacked the catharsis/resonance of the Cartman/Heidi storyline.
PC Principal/Strong Woman
Okay, first off, I love that they doubled down on these actually being the characters’ names. Like, they could have had a bit where PC Principal tells us his real name, but nope, “PC Principal” and “Strong Woman” are on their birth certificates. It’s so lazy, it’s brilliant. As for the romance between the two, I would say some aspects of it worked better than others. The bit where “Hold My Hand” starts playing and everyone in the room actually hears it was a perfect parody of how music is used in romantic comedies. PC Principal thinking HR stood for “Hootie Removal” was even better.
That being said, the actual romance was a bit lacking. We don’t quite get what draws them to each other — just that he likes her, and she reciprocates. I guess they bond over their shared interest in social justice? But in their opening interaction, Strong Woman calls him out for mansplaining at the assembly. They could have done more with that — maybe have PC Principal’s failed attempts to be a Good Male Ally annoy her more and more until that annoyance turns into attraction? Their scenes together are often funny, but they kind of just get together because the show needs them to.
Indeed, their relationship exists so that South Park can look at the fallout of the #MeToo movement. Specifically, in a post-Weinstein world, can office relationships work? What if they exist in a scenario where the man is the woman’s boss? We see everyone in town vomit with horror and rage when they find out the two are together. It’s a point well taken that not every male employer who takes a romantic interest in a female employee will abuse the situation the way Weinstein and others have, and it’s also fair to point out that in this cultural moment, we might be getting a little paranoid and assuming the worst in these situations.
That said, it would have worked better if they had given a little consideration to why that feeling persists. The final two episodes kind of just play it as “Well, it’s just a bad time for these things to be happening” without exploring the very real reasons behind these fears. Suppose that before meeting PC Principal, Strong Woman had been in another situation with a boss who actually was sexually abusive — that would have given more depth to the story and it made seem less like a chance to mock the “SJWs.” I would argue that what hurts this thread the most is that it happens too far into the season. If Strong Woman been introduced a few episodes earlier, her relationship with PC Principal would have had more time to develop.
In spite of these flaws, it’s hard to be too angry with this storyline because it ultimately provided the final two episodes with some of the funniest moments — the scene where they drag Butters to lunch with them is so perfectly awkward. More so than any other thread from this season, I’d like to see this plot be developed further in season 22.
Let’s say one thing: We can’t really call out Matt and Trey for pulling their punches with Trump anymore. In the final four episodes, their iteration of him played a major role in creating mayhem, and any notion that the pair are secret Trump fans should be put to bed. In “Doubling Down,” they compare Trump supporters to victims of Stockholm syndrome. In “Super Hard PCness,” he nukes Canada (with Kyle’s provocation, but still). In the season finale, they turn him into South Park’s own version of Pennywise from It and have him terrorize the town. I’d say it’s pretty clear they don’t like the guy.
In season 20, Hillary Clinton was portrayed as the “turd sandwich,” a candidate who was far less likely to cause chaos than Trump/Garrison but was also decidedly uninspiring. This was a fair critique of Clinton’s campaign, but it left many wondering if perhaps Matt and Trey were saying — as they had with Bush and Kerry in season 8’s “Douche and Turd” — that the two candidates were equally bad. That gets put to rest in the final episode, where Mr. White (who refers to his family as The Whites) continues to complain that Hillary wouldn’t be any better no matter how destructive Trump/Garrison gets. This was an interesting moment, because even though the lines were put in the mouth of a Trump supporter proxy, they just as easily could have been said by a Bernie Sanders supporter who voted for Jill Stein. Say what you will about Matt and Trey’s politics — any notion that they were too cowardly to handle Trump, or that they are low-key fans, has been put to rest. Not only did they take on Trump, but they did it in ways that were funny and interesting, especially in “Put It Down” and “Doubling Down.”
I realize I was pretty hard on them in my earlier review, and this is quite a reversal, but simply put, the rest of the season won me over. As good as “Put It Down” was, when they went three straight episodes without having Trump/Garrison appear, it seemed like that was all we were getting — that they were just going to say “Okay, we did a Trump episode, are you happy now?” Instead, he was thoroughly integrated into the second half of the season, and the show was much better for it.
This season was far from perfect, but it was a massive improvement over season 20 and had many all-time South Park moments (the song at the end of “Put It Down” really stands out). The decision to bring back Cartman and Heidi as a couple seemed regrettable at first, but it lead to Cartman getting what he deserved in the most satisfying way possible. The PC Principal/Strong Woman romance started a little late to be properly developed, but it delivered enough funny moments to excuse that. Kyle’s plot ends rather awkwardly, but there’s the potential to fix it next season. Overall, South Park had a great bounce-back season, one that should leave fans feeling confident that this show will be able to keep mocking the ridiculous world around us for years to come.