This post contains spoilers for [checks notes] South Park.
There’s an old adage from Mark Twain that says humor is tragedy plus time. If that’s true, it’s no wonder that the laughs from South Park’s “Vaccination Special” were eclipsed by existential dread. Last October, the folks behind everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed children delivered “The Pandemic Special,” the highest-rated South Park episode in over seven years, and a true-to-form hour long special drawing attention to everything from profiteering off the pandemic to the demands for racial justice. The commentary was biting, the jokes were a familiar brand of absurd, and the episode was praised by most.
But that was five months ago.
The “Vaccination Special” is far less affronting, choosing instead to present an accurate look at just how bananas-as-hell ridiculous society is continuing to behave under the guise of comedy.
It opens on their typical warning screen, but with a few alterations to mock the newly placed Disney+ notices that some of their older content may be offensive to today’s audiences. It’s a nice touch considering South Park has been including a warning screen for years before their episodes, knowing full well that this show is and has always been intentional in its potential to cause harm--providing a trigger warning before we even had a buzzword for it. That doesn’t mean they’re off the hook for the more openly bigoted stuff over the years, just an interesting observation.
Since the last special, the local Walgreens has now become the hottest place in town, with exclusive entry granted by the beefy bouncer at the door and his all-knowing list. The adults in town line up for days and plead their qualifications for entry, but the bouncer doesn’t budge. Unless you’re an elderly person or a first responder with an appointment, you’re staying in line. It’s a cute metaphor, except watching the desperation of the parents of South Park is downright painful to watch. The reality is that we’re all feeling just as scared and desperate.
I want to mock the always delusional Mr. Mackey trying to get into Walgreens without being on the list, but hearing him talk about spending thirty nights in a row on the computer trying to get on the list for a vaccination only to be turned away to go back to work in a school just reminds me that U.S. Teachers didn’t get vaccination clearance in all fifty states until the day after this special aired despite teaching in-person for months.
When Stephen Stotch interrupts him to argue that people with health conditions should be prioritized, (agreed) it’s quickly turned into a punchline because he’s lying about his quality of health to try to get inside. As a chronically ill cancer survivor, this moment earned a quick laugh followed by immediate rage knowing that there are absolutely people who have been forging doctor’s notes to try and get vaccinated or forging pay stubs to pretend they’re first responders. South Park did right by treating people who pull stunts like that as a joke, because that’s exactly what they are.
On the other side of town, Mr. Garrison returns looking to put the whole Trump thing behind him and go back to teaching elementary school, but the parents aren’t letting bygones be bygones any time soon. He messed up the entire country, and no one’s going to forget it. Unbeknownst to him, he winds up his biggest QAnon supporters--the Whites--and unintentionally inspires them all to become independent tutors when all of the parents pull their kids out of school. Now, instead of being taught by Mr. Garrison, the kids of South Park are being fed conspiracy theory garbage and eventually start a QAnon youth group, the Lil’ Qties.
Cartman says it best, "You guys have a right to say and believe whatever you want, OK? But what you believe is really stupid.”
This bit would be a lot funnier if QAnon didn’t embrace this representation and see it as a legitimate recruitment tool. Rather than feel mocked for South Park’s blatant hatred of QAnon, they’re feeling empowered that such a huge platform helped the world know who they are. I laugh to keep myself from crying.
Perhaps the most biting commentary of all, is how we’ve treated the children throughout the pandemic.
"Even though things are supposedly getting better with the pandemic, we're more depressed than ever," says Cartman. "The four of us just seem really different toward each other, we're worried the past year has put a strain on our broship."
In an attempt to salvage their broship, Cartman pulls a prank on a teacher to make it look like period blood has soaked through her clothes, who rightfully loses it and quits on the spot. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny return to school with masks on every day and try to treat things like they did before, but the aftermath of the prank is they can’t pretend that everything’s the same as it used to be. Tensions are high, they’re all processing it differently, and it’s causing a massive and possibly irreversible strain on their friendship. The boys need help, they need guidance, but all of the adults are just as confused and frustrated so there’s little help to be found.
Meanwhile, vaccinated elderly people drive by on motorcycles flipping the bird to school-aged children because they don’t have to wear masks anymore. The random appearances are a welcome break--likely because this isn’t how vaccinated elders are actually behaving in real life.
In an attempt to make things right, the boys come up with a scheme to steal vaccines from Walgreens and bring them to the school so their teachers can get vaccinated and maybe resume a little normalcy. What ends up happening is a showdown between the adults in town who will do anything to get their hands on a vaccine, and the Lil’ Qties trying to stop them because they believe the vaccines are poison and will kill the teachers if injected.
Thinking about how anti-maskers have shut down vaccination sites throughout the country, it’s hard to laugh at this ridiculous cartoon showdown that doesn’t feel very far from how we’re actually living.
The episode leaves on the incredibly bleak but unfortunately true realization that attempting to revert back to a pre-pandemic, pre-Trump world is futile. We have to do something different or else we’re screwed. When Trey Parker and Matt Stone are on, they’re some of the most brilliant satirists in American history. The biggest downfall of the “Vaccination Special” is that it feels way too close to home right now.
In a few years when the COVID-19 pandemic is in the rearview, it’s very likely that this episode may be recognized as one of the smartest things they’ve written. But we’re not there yet. There hasn’t been enough time for this to feel like comedy instead of a tragedy, but maybe that’s the point.
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BJ Colangelo is an award winning filmmaker and film analyst specializing in dismissed cinema and television. She writes about horror, wrestling, musicals, adult animation, sex and gender, kicking pancreatic cancer’s ass, and being a fat queer in places like Fangoria, Vulture, The Daily Dot, Autostraddle, Playboy.com, and a handful of books college students get assigned to read. She’s also the co-host of the teen girl movie podcast, This Ends at Prom, with her wife, Harmony.
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