South Park used to be one of the most reliably funny shows on tv, whilst it was gloriously puerile for the first four seasons or so from season five onwards they made the series far more twisted, with Cartman becoming a true monster, and it became essential television. But when they introduced serialised storytelling a couple of years ago for me the series lost it’s way a little. Not that there weren’t some stand out episodes but the finale’s have always been disappointing, leaving various aspects unresolved and it all feeling something of a damp squib. Famously they were caught off guard by Trump winning the election and failed to produce satisfying satire, and it’s been hit and miss ever since.
The latest episode is thankfully free of an ongoing arc, and is Parker and Stone’s attack on vape culture. Now I’m a fan of vaping, it helped me give up smoking and save a ridiculous amount of money, which I now spend on heroin and cocaine, so I was interested to see what they had to say about it. But bar the idea that kids shouldn’t smoke, it turns out not that much.
The episode starts well when Randy and Sharon are called in to school as Shelley has sent a picture of her butthole to the recess monitor, and even though it’s actually just a picture of a dog’s butthole it’s the final straw for Randy and he snaps, explaining how he’s tired of “School shootings, pieces of shit taking ambien and tweeting, priests raping kids, and somehow I’m not laughing anymore” which made me laugh a lot, the Roseanne reference especially. So he decides to sell the house and buy a farm, and grow weed for a living. Now Randy’s love for weed has been the subject of a lot of humour in the past, but they don’t really do anything new with it, bar that Towelie pops up as a purity inspector and gets ridiculously stoned.
Meanwhile Stan and Kyle are horrified to learn Kindergarteners are the biggest vapers in the school, and it turns out that Butters is the dark mysterious figure selling them. Inevitably he’s not working alone though, and Cartman’s his partner in the business. Again there’s some amusing material here, especially Cartman and Butter’s conversation whilst the former is on the toilet, but after this the episode starts going downhill. Kyle discovers that the duo are working together and attempts to stop them, but fails miserably, somehow being talked round by Cartman when that normally fails. And Randy’s subplot disappoints too as a vape company turn up and want to buy his product, but he’s outraged as he believes e-cigarettes are “Pussy sticks” which is hardly hilarious or original stuff.
There are some funny moments, from the reveal that Butters is behind it all, Cartman’s toilet antics, Stan telling Randy “I hate you so much” only for him to respond “I think we’re having a breakthrough moment”, an ongoing joke about Ronan Farrow lurking around, whilst Randy makes a hemp hat where “Two Princes” by Spin Doctors is played whenever anyone wears it, much to the confusion of all. And there’s some pleasing oddness, like when The Vaping Man (looking an awful lot like the Kool-Aid mascot) turns up, and Cartman manages to find a dead hooker to help him get out of the vaping business. But the rest of it falls a little flat, the jokes are there but they just didn’t make me laugh.
I had high hopes for the episode as the AV Club ran a review of it with the headline “South Park takes on vape culture in one of its funniest episodes in years”, and so perhaps went in with expectations which were higher than usual, but unfortunately I didn’t find it to be the case. It’s not a bad episode by any means and is amiable stuff for sure, and certainly has some cute gags and funny scenes, but I’m not sure what the message is. Vaping’s certainly bad for kids, no one would ever suggest otherwise, but the show’s shots at both weed and vaping culture are all rather lacklustre and worst of all, not that funny. The episode ends with Stan saying “Oh god this is just going to get worse, isn’t it?” suggesting that the story isn’t over, but I wish it was as judging by this I don’t have any faith that they’re going to do anything that funny with the ideas played with here.