Photo: ‘South Park Vaccination Special’/Comedy Central
When it comes to ‘South Park’, we can usually expect a lot of things from it: raunchiness, vulgarity, topicality, and a willingness to skewer everyone through biting satirical humor. And yet, not even ‘South Park’ was immune to the hellish year that was 2020. In fact, the show more or less took last year off, with the hour-long ‘Pandemic Special’ episode created remotely and taking the place of a proper season. But what about now? What would 2021 bring?
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It’s hard to believe but it’s only been a year since the world changed. It was around this time last year that the World Health Organization designated COVID-19 as a global pandemic and the impact it had on our lives was immense. Cities were shut down. Businesses took a hit or were shuttered altogether. Jobs and revenue were lost. We couldn’t gather with our friends or in some cases our own families. More than half a million people in this country are dead. For those of us lucky enough to have made it this far, our mental health took a hit. The point is we all lost something. And even with hope on the horizon with the steady rollout of the vaccines, there’s no getting back the time we lost. For a lot of us, there’s no going back to normal.
And Trey Parker and Matt Stone know this. It’s almost fitting that we’re getting another special episode, ‘The Vaccination Special’, on this one-year anniversary as we’re starting to turn the corner; it’s like the two episodes are bookending the pandemic. True to form, ‘The Vaccination Special’ delivers the solid and irreverent laughs we’ve come to expect from the series as it comes to grips with a different world.
Where We Left Off — ‘The Pandemic Special’
But first a quick recap. When we last saw South Park (the town) it was devastated by the pandemic, same as anywhere else in the world. Some thrived while others suffered. Randy Marsh was profiting from the pandemic by selling a special brand of marijuana. And Cartman reveled in social distancing and being able to stay at home. Meanwhile, the local police force is now defunct because of the reckoning against police violence. Butters grows increasingly agitated over not being able to visit Build-A-Bear. And Stan tries to keep his friends’ spirits up during the pandemic. But things take a turn when school is reopened and the police are brought in to run things, which only exacerbates tensions. Meanwhile Randy has to reckon with the fact that he might be responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak (true to series form, it involves multiple instances of bestiality).
It should come as no surprise that the social commentary and humor would be on point in the episode. Among the things it satirizes are the United States’ COVID-19 responses and reactions, police brutality, racial unrest (with Token getting the worst of it), improper mask-wearing, U.S-China relations, and the pandemic’s impact on both education and mental health. The result is a plot that is a bit scattered but still works in capturing the chaos and anxiety we all felt in 2020. It even allows for some moments of poignancy as we see the negative impacts of the virus on the town and its citizens, as well as Stan’s breakdown at the end of the episode as he admits how the pandemic is affecting him mentally and how he desperately wants things to go back to normal.
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‘South Park Vaccination Special’ — The Plot
It’s 2021 and COVID-19 vaccinations are finally being doled out in South Park. The town’s residents clamor for it, resenting how the elderly are prioritized, while QAnon followers oppose the vaccine. Meanwhile, Stan, Kyle, and Cartman start to reevaluate their fraying friendship in light of the pandemic, with Kenny caught in the middle. A prank gone wrong leads the four boys to try to secure the highly sought-after vaccines for their teachers as a way to hopefully salvage their friendship. Meanwhile, Mr. Garrison returns after his long “sabbatical” only to be shunned and hated by everyone (in the South Park universe, he filled the role of the Trump-esque figure and became President for the past four years). In the process of getting his life back to normal, he crosses paths with the QAnon followers and learns of their conspiracy theories about “the elite”, all as QAnon finds a way to spread their teachings to the children of South Park.
The ‘Vaccination Special’ Asks If There’s Such a Thing As “Normal” Anymore
While ‘The Pandemic Special’ was still pretty solid, the ‘Vaccination Special’ is a more satisfying episode. Where the plot threads in the previous special meandered a bit with a second act that sagged, this one feels more focused. In a way this episode also feels like a return to old-school ‘South Park’: one can argue the show was focusing a bit too much on Randy recently, but this episode puts the four boys front and center. Their plotline even kicks off with a Cartman scheme that goes wrong and just snowballs from there.
Among the targets for mockery in this episode are the COVID-19 vaccine distribution process, and the far-right QAnon movement, and their ridiculous theories and beliefs. The episode even finds time to spoof the recent disclaimers added to ‘The Muppet Show’ on Disney+. In terms of humor, the episode definitely delivers. There’s a good deal of comedy mined out of the fact that the town’s elderly spend the entire episode acting like hooligans and gloating over getting the vaccine first, as well as the local Walgreens’ being set up like an exclusive club; the townspeople’s growing desperation upon learning that the boys have acquired vaccines is also pretty funny. But the episode also makes some pointed observations regarding the frustration of seeing some groups get prioritized over essential workers like teachers. And there’s even some fan service here with a lot of fun Easter Eggs and callbacks to previous episodes.
As mentioned, QAnon is a major satirical target here (the episode was even marketed with the title ‘South ParQ Vaccination Special’). The supporters are portrayed as delusional in their refusal to accept the election and their insistence on worshipping someone—in this case Garrison—who has nothing but contempt for them. They’re also shown as clearly in the wrong for trying to brainwash the South Park kids (though it leads to a funny gag of the indoctrinated kids forming a group called “Lil’ Qties”). The episode also pokes fun at their outlandish belief in a cabal of “Hollywood Elites” that’s controlling everything. Without getting into spoilers the plot entertains that possibility and things take a hilariously meta turn (think the Looney Tunes classic ‘Duck Amuck’).
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If there is a running theme throughout the special, it’s the desire for a return to “normal”. Garrison is hilariously oblivious as to why everyone hates him and wants things back the way they used to be. The four boys try to settle back into their regular friendship only to struggle as they drift apart, with the pandemic having reshaped their perspectives. But what the show argues is that there may be no going back especially after the past few years. Garrison might be able to achieve that (and it is nice to see him back to his regular self after four years of being a Trump proxy) but for the boys, and the world in general, it might not be possible. Once things are back to normal, so to speak, will we actually learn from our mistakes or will we just forget and fall back into our habits? And how mad has the world become that something outlandish like QAnon could spread?
As for the boys, there’s a point in the episode where Kenny mentions how the pandemic has exposed problems in their friendship they didn’t know were there. A lot of people can attest to relationships being unraveled as a result of this past year, so it is believable. In the case of the boys, the desire to force normalcy back only does more harm than good. It’s not the first time their friendship’s been tested by an existential crisis (see Season 15’s ‘You’re Getting Old’), though it will be interesting to see if this one sticks and for how long.
In short, ‘South Park Vaccination Special’ is a funny and satisfying return to one of our favorite fictional small towns. At this point, it’s unclear as to if and when the show’s next season will premiere (it has been renewed through 2022) or if we’ll get more specials. But by the time the show returns properly the world might be back to a semblance of normal. And when it does, you can count on ‘South Park’ to embrace it…and find a way to make fun of it.
Created by: Trey Parker, Matt Stone | Executive Producers: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Anne Garofino | Writer & Director: Trey Parker
Voices: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, April Stewart, Mona Marshall, Kimberly Brooks, Jessica Makinson, John Hansen, Jennifer Howell, Betty Boogie Parker, Cleopatra Stone
By Mario Yuwono
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