This season, South Park has tackled the difficulties of growing up, American reliance on immigrant workers, tabloid journalism, and how the '1%' riots have been no more useful in resolving the financial crisis than the people originally to blame. The series' mix of social commentary with bawdy, absurdist humour has proven a winning combination time and time again, helped in no small part by each episode being written and created only a short time before going to air. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone can tackle current events with an immediacy denied to most conventional comedies, an advantage they have embraced frequently and with gusto.
There are also times when they have just seized upon a fairly random and meaningless idea, blown it out of all proportion and waited to see what stuck. 'A History Channel Thanksgiving' was one of those episodes.
The episode started out hinting at a look at how white Americans have rewritten history to their own ends, with Thanksgiving re-appropriated as a celebration of unity when it was actually the beginning of an historical era that would see Native Americans kicked off their own land in particularly bloody circumstances. The gag was compounded by how the man hired by the school to come in and give a talk was only one-sixteenth Native American (Cartman: "Does that mean we only have to pay one-sixteenth attention to you?") and clearly very white, making him every bit as guilty of using history to his own end, even while acting as though his flimsy ancestral link to an oppressed people somehow gave him permission to speak on their behalf. To the boys' irritation, they were forced to write a history report on the real events of Thanksgiving, which Cartman decided to cheat on by copying everything from a History Channel 'documentary' on the holiday.
Anyone who has ever watched the History Channel will have had a pretty good idea of what was coming up - and if they didn't, the Channel's new slogan ("Where truth is history") should have been a tip-off. Their version of events wasn't the story of settlers and Native Americans coming together for a meal, but a conspiracy theory about an alien invasion at Plymouth Rock in 1620, substantiated by highly questionable statements from supposed academics, most of which focused on how no proof had been found of an alien invasion not having happened at the original Thanksgiving. The History Channel promptly dispatched agents to go and pick up the boys, recruiting them for the ongoing intergalactic battle between Space Pilgrims and Space Indians. Then Natalie Portman got involved and refused to 'open her wormhole' until Kyle wined and dined her, thus allowing the exiled Pilgrim warrior, Myles Standish, to return home and save his people's 'stuffing mines' from invading Indians. Yes, you read that correctly.
'A History Channel Thanksgiving' was not one of the more meaningful or nuanced episodes to date, then, nor one of the most memorable. Episodes like this are the closest thing South Park has to filler and for all the craziness, it stuck pretty closely to an established formula. For starters, any long-term viewers of the programme will know by now that the moment any insane theory is voiced, it will inevitably turn out to be true. So it proved tonight, with the History Channel's absolute conviction that aliens really were present at Thanksgiving proving not only correct, but even underestimating the scale of the truth. Fortunately, the concept was mad enough that laughs came fairly regularly despite the slight sense of overfamiliarity and a Thor parody coming several months too late. There was an abundance of funny sight gags, like Portman being 'assisted' in opening her 'wormhole' behind Plymouth Rock (her coy act beforehand was consistently amusing too) or a nice jab at the Green Lantern movie, which nobody cares about.
The more I think about it, the more the episode did continue to a limited extent with its hinted theme of history being rewritten for ulterior motives: in addition to the History Channel making up nonsense to improve its ratings, using Thor as the basis for the central parody could be seen as a nod to how the original comics rewrote Norse mythology as the basis for a new superhero, thus misleading readers (who might have assumed that what they were reading in the comic were the original myths) in the same way that the History Channel was. I'm not sure how well that idea holds together in practice, especially since the crux of the story involved the History Channel's deranged theory turning out to be true, but I suppose it proves that it is possible to find thematic links anywhere if you look hard enough, or are in possession of a thoroughly useless English degree.
Even if the 'history rewritten' theme was the basis for the episode's creation, it didn't really matter, because virtually all the episode's entertainment value came from its escalating level of lunacy, plus a number of charmingly stupid one-liners and some period jokes thrown in for good measure. Stuffing is one of those words that is naturally pretty funny, and 'A History Channel Thanksgiving' used it frequently and well: someone needs to put 'He who controls the stuffing controls the universe' on a t-shirt, pronto. I'm still not completely sure what to make of the line 'If anyone knows about stuffing, it's Natalie Portman', but it did make me laugh quite a bit, so there. I am a little disappointed that more wasn't made of how Kyle was blatantly chosen to take her on a date (and thus gain access to her wormhole) because both he, like Portman, is Jewish, though.
'A History Channel Thanksgiving' was probably the weakest episode of the season so far, without anything much to say for itself and the laughs mostly chuckles rather than guffaws, but it is an ongoing testament to how great South Park has been of late that even its formulaic filler episodes can be this much fun.
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