Brow Beat

The Muddled, Sad Election Episode of South Park Reflected What We Are All Feeling

The show was as shocked as we were.

Comedy Central

Like the rest of the world, South Park was not expecting a Donald Trump victory. The show, which has been closely following the election cycle this season, had an episode planned to air Wednesday night—just 24 hours after the results came in—that was produced on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be elected president. The guesswork didn’t exactly pan out. With a tighter turnaround time than usual, executive producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone had to play catch-up. They had to answer the question that’s left an entire nation speechless: What do we do now?

The uncertainty surrounding Tuesday night’s electoral result translated, a day later, into a South Park episode that felt appropriately shapeless. The show that has made its name by brashly taking on current events in American life was, suddenly and discomfitingly, at a loss for words. The episode (suitably titled “Oh, Jeez”) began with a voice creeping in with a quiet admission: “Definitely a bit of a surprise here.” The line was delivered in measured shock. “It looks like America voted for a change of pace,” the voice followed, audibly unclear as to why, and disturbed as to how. The episode’s brief opening scene channeled the mood of the country. There had been no time for processing or context—only to acknowledge the unthinkable.

Parker and Stone’s attempt to react to the election results in the South Park spirit was cathartic in its own way. While the show normally strains to stay bipartisan, treating both political sides equally, a sad sense of resignation seeped through Wednesday night. The characters unwilling to come to grips with a Trump (or Mr. Garrison, in this case) win promptly sedated themselves with “member berries”—basically acid for nostalgia and basking in the good ol’ days—in order to accept the result as a blast to the past. (Lots of Star Wars reboot jabs were fitted in here.) And the show acknowledged the election’s underlying sexist dynamic as it hadn’t come close to doing before, with clarity and vexation: After teenager Shelley expressed outrage at the outcome, her drugged-out, bone-headed, Garrison-accepting father told her with oblivious optimism, “We learned that women can be anything—except for president.”  

South Park’s response overall was anything but smooth: It was angry and it was muddled. The episode pushed other story arcs along as well, like the middling ongoing storyline about trolling, to meet the demands of the season’s intensely serialized structure—and that only added to the sense of discord. Indeed, “Oh, Jeez” was not a very good episode of television; in due time, its muted, indiscernible take on Trump’s victory may feel less appropriate than extraneous. But in this moment, its uncertainty feels like part of the point. We are yet to process the events of Tuesday night and beyond. The profound anxiety isn’t going away anytime soon. And South Park didn’t have anything particularly funny to say about that. It could only react with the rest of us.