South Park recently announced that they would be returning on the 30th of September for an hour-long one-off special, subtly entitled ‘The Pandemic Special’. You already know what it’s about.
South Park is an institution of its own now – the only one of the ‘90s wave of animated comedies which is still going and which hasn’t degenerated into a flimsy caricature of its former self. There’s two main prongs to this: its willingness to modify its dynamic now and again (the kids getting slightly older, the increased screentime of the parents, season-long story arcs) and its focus on current events.
The latter is probably most remarkable, the product of a punishingly short production schedule and allowing South Park to offer topical commentary on stuff its animated rivals will be stuttering about eight months later. Appropriately, this isn’t them scrambling to do the early days of Coronavirus (remember them? The short hop from ‘oh, we’ll be ok over here’ to panic-buying toilet paper), but rather something up-to-the-minute, the ill-advised and probably ill-fated return of children to schools.
Cartman is first and foremost to object to this – so the obvious question is, what’s he going to do to make the pandemic worse and get school cancelled again? Lest anyone think this is beyond the pale for Cartman, in the past we’ve seen him lead a Nazi revival, have an older boy cannibalise his own parents, and rig the 2012 elections. There is really no better villain, cartoon or otherwise, to lend a comic touch to the unthinkable act of exacerbating the pandemic.
And yes, this will mean bodies dropping – but it’s funny here, because it’s a cartoon. The most obvious candidate is, naturally, Kenny. It’s been a long time since he would reliably die violently in every single episode (“You bastards!”), but it still happens now and again. South Park also has a cheerfully blasé attitude to killing off its second-stringers and bit-players – and usually wields this effectively, using it to give weight to a story arc rather than have the threat-of-the-week kill off a nameless nobody. Plus, its cast includes various fragile eternal victims who likely would not fare well with the plague, not least Kyle’s hopelessly nebbish cousin Kyle Schwartz, though more likely casualties are (just as in real life) the people who deny the virus’s existence before getting a nasty wake-up call.
Of course, it may not simply be the coronavirus doing people in. The trailer reveals that the schools, now socially distanced and full of plastic shields and warning tape, are also now staffed entirely by the police. South Park’s libertarian leanings have always made them more likely than most to mock the police, not least for their tendency to kill people given the slightest provocation – something else that’s been in the news a lot recently. Hard-edged for a joke? Perhaps, but this is South Park. It’s not like they haven’t gone there before.
‘The Pandemic Special’ is a similar framing device to one that cropped up here and there throughout the previous season of South Park, where it’s also the name of Randy’s latest strain of marijuana (much like his previous efforts ‘Halloween Special’ and ‘Season Finale’). It’s hard to see, though, what fresh material there is to explore there. The lockdown saw many people consuming more of their drug of choice, we know that – but beyond that, what else is there to say about it?
Tegridy Farms have already gone fairly corporate through their deal with China, and appear to produce enough that Randy and Towelie getting heroically high on their own supply shouldn’t present too much of a problem. In the old days, there might have been trouble selling it (and South Park is old enough to have done an episode where people couldn’t physically get into dispensaries), but as we’ve seen, Tegridy Farms literally has its own app, that too is all online now. So there’s a real possibility this may just be a framing device – that, or it’s made Randy Bill Gates-scale rich.
Admittedly, all these predictions are coming from the slim basis of the teaser trailer. There’s speculation, and then there’s trying to divine the future from entrails. But there is the additional point that this is an hour-long special. When South Park does longer-form content, such as the 1999 film, and the various two- and three-parters (including the Imaginationland trilogy, which was to have been the second film), it usually involves higher stakes than usual – but more than that, a plotline which gets particularly, uniquely, absurd and unrealistic. If nothing else, we can look forward to an hour which doesn’t take the pandemic seriously at all.
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