How much you loved the 200th episode of South Park last night probably depended largely on how much you love one of the biggest subgenres of that show: Episodes That Make Fun of Celebrities. That’s personally not one of my favorite brands of South Park episode, so the show’s celebration of its own transgressiveness, the Tom-Cruise-baiting and the nostalgic returns of Mel Gibson, Rob Reiner, Mecha-Streisand and more was a bit lost on me.
But the episode, ending with a to-be-continued cliffhanger, was redeemed for me by its incorporation of two other classic South Park subgenres that I love much more: (1) Episodes That Break Popular Taboos and (2) Episodes Concerning Bizarre Quests Involving the Kids, Particularly Cartman.
I don’t have a blanket problem with South Park’s celebrity spoofs; the panorama of famous faces from the past was enough to remind me of celeb-centric episodes that did work. Too often, though, they don’t add up to much of a point beyond “Rob Reiner is fat,” or “The last Indiana Jones movie sucked” or “Tom Cruise is [legally actionable characterization redacted].”
I was, on the other hand, delighted to see the return of Cartman’s-hand-as-Jennifer-Lopez, because that episode didn’t only make fun of J.-Lo. It also played off Cartman’s character, from his casual ignorance (i.e., he can’t think of a better way to imitate a Latina celebrity than to say “taco” and “burrito”) to his childlike tendency to get lost in his own b.s. (as he begins to act as though his hand actually is J.-Lo.). Parlaying that into an out-of-nowhere subplot about Cartman’s real father—in which his hand takes on a second personality, as a con man who’s playing J.-Lo.—was a classically weird South Park twist. (Also, the final, tense showdown with Mr. Hat—”You’re asking questions that shouldn’t be answered!”—proved again how well Trey Parker has internalized the dialogue of cheesy action movies.)
As for the Episodes That Break Taboos aspect, the Muhammad storyline (including the irony of Comedy Central chickening out on a depiction of the prophet that they allowed without consequence in 2001) is something we’ve seen before too. But it was well-integrated into the larger plot, and I’ll take any excuse to see the Super Best Friends again. (Maybe partly because South Park all began with Jesus—and Santa—and maybe because the show makes more well-realized characters of the religious figures than it does with most of its celebrities.)
In the end, even if this wasn’t one for the record books, I wouldn’t expect what is basically a nostalgia episode to be an all-time great. And with its recent Facebook and KFC-marijuana episodes, the show is at least on a mini-run of good episodes again.
And as it turns out, the Enchirito is in fact still available for order at some Taco Bells. You learn things from South Park!
[Update: I realize that this is not technically a bicentennial. Though South Park may well be with us for 200 years.]