The ‘South Park’ vaccination special asks what happens after the COVID-19 pandemic

March 19, 2021

The long-running cartoon series “South Park” has slowed down production. During the pandemic, only two new episodes were produced rather than the usual 10-episode season. The series is famous for pushing the boundaries of comedy and for good taste with its crass humor.  In recent years, however, the “South Park” series has started to take on more political issues, using its trademark paper cut-out style to showcase the ridiculousness of real life. Its latest special episode, “The South ParQ: Vaccination Special,” tackles the anxiety induced by the vaccination process and the potential aftermath of the pandemic, as well as the current icon of stupidity that is QAnon. The episode handles these issues with surprising nuance and plenty of the “South Park” absurdity that we have come to expect.

The main conflict of the episode is access to the new COVID-19 vaccine. The hottest club in the town of “South Park” is now the local Walgreens, where only those on the exclusive vaccination list can get in to get their shot. The main characters, Cartman (Trey Parker), Stan (Trey Parker), Kyle (Matt Stone) and Kenny (Matt Stone), get involved after a prank on their teacher goes wrong and she refuses to return to school until all the teachers are vaccinated. This sparks a heist on the local Walgreens where the kids steal vaccines. But the majority of the episode does not focus on the theft of the vaccines, instead exploring how the town and the kids react to the theft. The boys have to deal with tough decisions about whether to give the vaccine to teachers, to their parents, to sell them or even to use it themselves. This is a surprisingly nuanced take on the vaccination process and the anxiety it can cause not just for those waiting, but for those who have to make tough choices about how to handle the pandemic and vaccination process.

 That being said, the special still has a lot of crass humor. The inciting prank that Cartman and Kenny pull on their teacher is crude and frankly offensive. They put ketchup on her chair and make period jokes when her clothes get covered in ketchup. The prank is childish and in keeping with the show’s traditional style of humor. But even this prank has a deeper meaning to it. Cartman and Kenny pull the prank and drag Stan and Kyle into their mess in order to keep their “broship” alive. Essentially the prank is an attempt to bring things back to the way they were on “South Park.” In other words, to bring a return to the vulgar humor “South Park” is known for. Of course, this backfires spectacularly, but more importantly the juxtaposition of the prank to the boy’s desire to return to normalcy reflects many people’s similar desire to get things back to normal. Although the episode focuses on the boy’s attempts to get things back to normal, it also asks if that is something that we really want to do or even can do.

The concept of returning to the established order is even more apparent in the episode’s subplot, with the return of Mr. Garrison (Trey Parker). For the past four years, the former teacher has been serving as the “South Park” universe’s version of Donald Trump. He returns after losing the last presidential election and tries to get his old job back. Garrison’s attempts to return to his former life are marred by his actions as president and the fact that everyone in the towns hates him… save for one family aptly named the Whites, who have always supported the former president, but now are also followers of the insane QAnon conspiracy theory. The special absolutely eviscerates the conspiracy theory by having QAnon believers become private tutors spreading their beliefs to the children of “South Park.” Ironically, many of the parents only hire these tutors specifically because Garrison becomes the new public school teacher. Meanwhile kids like popular recurring character Butters (Trey Parker) become susceptible to these lies due to their isolation under quarantine. Garrison’s denial about why the people of “South Park” hate him leads him to team up with the QAnon followers, revealing the cyclical nature of how conspiracy theorists and a certain former president feed off their shared denial of reality.

In the end, Garrison betrays the Whites and strikes a deal with the secret Hollywood powers that control the world. These powers take the form of the animators who literally alter the reality of the “South Park” world in exchange for Garrison returning to his old life, symbolized by the return of his famous sidekick, the hand puppet Mr. Hat (Trey Parker). In the end, everyone gets their vaccines and likes Garrison again. As the adults go out and celebrate the return to normalcy in “South Park,” the boy’s story ends with them going their separate ways. While they reassure each other they will still hang out together, their tone of voice implies that they are not so hopeful about the future. Whether or not the boys’ dynamic is changed forever is yet to be seen, but it does show how the younger generation is handling the stress and anxiety of this pandemic.  While the adults party and return to business as usual the kids are forced to contemplate the effects this pandemic has had on them.  

The point of the episode is more than just about getting the vaccine; It’s about the effects the pandemic has had on American society, a pandemic that revealed the flaws and weaknesses in not just our healthcare system, but in our society as well. It poses the question of what happens after the pandemic ends. Will the residents of “South Park” return to their old ways after the pandemic, and, if so, is that a good thing?

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