The latest episode of South Park is, as we’ve come to expect from longform editions of the animated satire, a cinematic tour de force rendered in crappy digital cardboard. Over the 45 head-spinning minutes of the new Vaccination Special, wrangles over the vaccination roll-out in Colorado’s most ManBearPig-blighted mountain town escalate into all-out generational culture war, with the pensioners marauding around town on an endless post-jab bender, the adults begging for any shot they can get and the youth infected with a massive viral load of QAnon theory.
For a show that spent its recent 23rd series only sporadically hitting the mark – for every mild send up of vaccine conspiracists or attacks on Trump caging Mexican children, there were episodes lampooning health fads and endless weed exploits on Randy Marsh’s Tegridy Farm – this was a magisterial return to form. With so much real-world insanity to work with since their Pandemic Special in September it felt as though they were throwing a whole season’s worth of issues into an animated comedy blender with no lid: anti-vaxxers, deluded Trumpist conspiracy chumps, Trump’s own slide under the legal radar, hidden power elites, TV talent shows, hysterical liberals, a media pandering to lies and beliefs over the truth. By machine-gunning the entire era of pandemic madness in one hour-long spree, the Vaccination Special didn’t just rock in as one of the greatest South Park episodes of all time, it felt like a culmination.
Key to its brilliance is the running thread hinting strongly that this might be the last ever show. It definitely isn’t – season 24 has already been confirmed and the show is commissioned through to 2022 – but it certainly wants you to think it might be. “We feel like we’re going through the brotions,” Cartman tells counsellor Mackey as the core foursome lament the loss of their gang chemistry in the wake of a lame period-based prank on their pandemic supply teacher. “We were just phoning it in,” he claims, reflecting an attitude that has simmered self-mockingly under South Park scripts for some years, escalating ever since someone first screamed “Simpsons did it!” As attuned as we’ve become to reading the writer’s room from the sly asides dropped into the show, Cartman is clearly supposed to be airing the feelings of Parker and Stone themselves. “I am 48,” Stone said in 2019, “Trey turns 50 this year. So I will say that I don’t think we will be doing this show when we’re 60.”
As the show progresses Kyle, Stan and Cartman inch ever closer to breaking up the band, even going so far as to agree a joint custody arrangement for Kenny. “We all agree we are no longer bros, the magic has gone and we are through,” Cartman says, leading fans to speculate if this is indeed ‘The End’. There are other signs too. The huge number of self-referential callbacks and cameos, from Casa Bonita to the underpant gnomes and Easter eggs such as a QAnon nut including the phrase “whale on the moon?” on their wild conspiracy whiteboard. The return of Mr Garrison to his original ‘unhinged teacher’ role after one half-hearted term of inadequately satirising Trump. The fact that the show is clearly running dry of ideas, as evidenced by season 23 foregrounding Randy’s Tegridy Farm rather than the original foursome and reheating its old transgender controversies in the ‘Board Girls’ episode.
There’s also a sense that a show which became a cult by ruthlessly cutting to the quick of popular culture is ideologically homeless in 2021. Where once South Park was accepted as a weekly, confrontational dose of reason and sanity in a world so batshit that Rob Schneider was allowed to happen, its years of flirting with every ‘ism’ and ‘obia’ under the sun in order (by and large) to better satirise them has left it at odds with much of its original young adult demographic. The introduction of the PC Babies – toddlers who burst into tears at the merest hint of potential offence – was a sign that the writers felt under attack from all sides and alienated from a new generation for whom provocation is tantamount to abuse. South Park’s methodology of exposing and ridiculing bigotry, inhumanity and general human ridiculousness by shoving it in your face in a beanie cap has begun rubbing roughly against the fragile sensibilities of the Twitter age.
With Biden’s arrival promising at least four years in which satire will no longer conveniently write itself, you can understand, then, why Parker and Stone might want to head on out of South Park once and for all. But by suggesting they’re “dialling it in” in an episode that finds their brand of absurdist shock-value social mockery seem as fresh, vital and crammed with ideas as ever, Vaccination Special is as much a chance for a rebirth as a cinematic crescendo.
‘South Park: The Vaccination Special’ airs Friday March 12 at 10pm on Comedy Central UK