Tuned In

South Park‘s 1% Solution

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Cartman and his stuffed friends learn that growing up is hard to do.

Sometimes South Park makes strong episodes out of topical stories that are happening in the news. Sometimes it makes strong episodes out of non-topical stories that involve its main characters dealing with childhood. Given that “1%” was so obviously plotted around the Occupy Wall Street movement, I tuned in hoping for the former. Instead, we got the latter, thanks to the classically disturbed, and surprisingly poignant, behavior of Eric Cartman.

The first thing first. The satire of Occupy Wall Street itself felt almost perfunctory, going for some obvious targets (“class warfare” puns, Matt and Trey? really?) and missing opportunities to go deeper and satirize the substance of either the Occupiers’ protests or their critics. (There were some jabs at media overcoverage of small protests and the smatterings of a thesis that the protesters were only targeting the “1%” because they voted for Obama and “In today’s day and age you can’t blame a black person for anything”–but then again, that all came out of Cartman’s mouth.*) Really, the episode had more to say on the policy of obsessively protecting kids’ self-esteem–an old topic but still a rewarding one–than on whether there’s anything to the protests over income inequality or not.

*I’m not sure I have much of a read from this as to whether this is actually Matt and Trey’s view of Obama, or for that matter, where the libertarian pair stand on Presidential politics in general right now. Though I would guess, given their past interests, that artistically they’d love to have a Mormon President to write about.

But last night’s Cartman arc was just brilliant. Granted, any episode that features a Cartman psychotic break gets immediate credit from me. (I still hold that “Scott Tenorman Must Die” is the greatest South Park of all time, and I will feed a bowl of chili to anyone who maintains otherwise.) The show, as is going to be the case over 15 seasons, has gone to this well a lot–Cartman’s hand as Jennifer Lopez and thence Mitch Conner–but “1%” switched things up in a way that returned to the season’s theme of people getting older and changing.

Some of South Park’s best episodes are the ones in which Trey and Matt get to indulge their genre-movie side, and Cartman’s breaks from reality, exposing the workings of his toys-in-the-attic subconscious, let them go full-on psycho-thriller, in a way that spoofs this style of story but is also genuinely disturbing. (“Dude. What the hell?”) And if the sudden and macabre deaths of Cartman’s little plush friends had simply been the work of the fifth graders, the episode still would have been worth it for the scene in which Cartman grills his mom in the multiple voices of his toys, and his indulgent mother not only plays along but buys in tearfully.

But the reveal that the killing spree was all the work of Polly Prissy Pants—which is to say, of Cartman himself, goaded by his mother and his friends to start growing up—was not just creep-out funny (“Say hello to the sunrise for me”) but genuinely affecting. For Cartman—lazy, demanding, devoted to pleasure—childhood isn’t just a stage of life, it’s a way of life. But this episode showed that, at some level, even he understands that he’s got to grow up sometime—that beyond a certain point his way of living stops being funny and becomes sad.

This is still Cartman we’re talking about, so I don’t expect his personality to radically change overnight. But having him, painfully, pull the trigger on a piece of his childhood felt like another incremental step in South Park’s growing up. Farewell, Clyde Frog.