01 October 2020 14:38
Warning: this review contains full spoilers for South Park: "The Pandemic Special"! Normally Comedy Central would be kicking off a new season of South Park right about now. But whether because of the logistics of producing new episodes during a pandemic or just 2020 being the year that broke satire, there's no new season on the horizon. But there is "The Pandemic Special" to tide us over until things get back to normal. This standalone installment makes history as both the first South Park special and the first hourlong episode of the series.
Unfortunately, it winds up feeling less like a classic South Park adventure than a weird coda to Season 23 no one asked for. Again, it's tough to conjure enough scenarios stranger than the reality of life in 2020, so it was always going to be an uphill battle for Trey Parker, Matt Stone and their team to find a new angle on current events. Their solution is basically to bet it all on Randy Marsh. Though once the show's most dependably hilarious character, Randy has pretty well worn out his welcome in the last couple years thanks to the played-out Tegridy Farms subplot. Sadly, Randy doesn't seem any closer to giving up the marijuana business. The people of South Park need their Pandemic Special, and he's the only one that can deliver. On paper, the idea of Randy being the secret culprit behind COVID-19 sounds like a great premise. And there are certainly some memorable moments along the way. It's fun seeing this episode tie back to Season 23's China storyline and revealing Randy's debauched antics with Mickey Mouse. You have to love the constant digs at people who refuse to wear their masks/chin diapers properly. And Randy's attempt at "engineering" a vaccine is certainly classic Randy Marsh. But those moments notwithstanding, this whole storyline is a meandering mess. There's too much self-aware dialogue, too many random plot twists (like the secondary mustache pandemic) and not much in the way of payoff in the end. "The Pandemic Special" actually succeeds more when it pivots to the periphery of the coronavirus storyline to tackle other timely issues like police reform and the psychological toll social distancing is taking on children. Those two ideas dovetail nicely in a bleakly hilarious subplot about South Park's defunded police department being contracted out as teachers. Here the special shows a much sharper set of fangs. South Park has rarely been more timely or relevant in the last few years than when it tackles gun violence, and this episode is no exception. This oddball premise winds up serving as a perfect examination of how poorly trained, over-armed police officers only make bad situations worse. It's that perfect double-edged sword of hilarious satire that hits all too close to home. It should also be said that "The Pandemic Special" makes excellent use of President Garrison. Garrison has pretty much receded into the background of the series lately, which is just as well. But this episode proves that he can still click when used properly and sparingly. Garrison only pops up for a brief interlude in the middle and a surprise return at the very end, and both scenes add an extra touch of darkness to an already pretty bleak installment of the series. Plus, the Mr. Slave callback is a standout in an episode full of references to older seasons. Despite having more than double the runtime of a normal episode, "The Pandemic Special" winds up making the same mistake as too many recent episodes - it's less than the sum of its parts. The plot is messy and never quite builds to a satisfying finale. President Garrison's abrupt return helps smooth over some of the rough edges and end things on an appropriately dark note. But that doesn't change the fact that "The Pandemic Special" is a haphazard mashup of 2020 topics and really needed some fine-tuning and streamlining. If anything, it's a shame we aren't getting a more traditional season anytime soon. Spread out over the course of several episodes, these individual pieces might have had more room to breathe and grow.