South Park's new season got off to a solid start last week, satirising a popular concern through an absurdist lens in order to make a controversial point: in that case, that people are as much to blame for backing down in the fight over their civil liberties as governments are for violating them in the first place. The series doesn't always need to strive to make a point, but is often at its strongest with a clear target in mind and a strategy for how to skewer it most effectively and for maximum humiliation.
Shock value is a more difficult approach, not least because most people watching South Park have grown up with animated children swearing on television and steadily moved into seeing all sorts of sights on the big and small screen that would make their parents faint in horror. This is a desensitised generation, so getting around those in-built defences requires greater subtlety than the days when a little arterial spray or loose cursing could set protest groups reaching for their placards. 'Cash For Gold' aimed for shock value, but turned out an episode few will remember, let alone debate.
The problem is that there's only so much to be said about the Cash For Gold companies and Shopping Channels. They take advantage of people, for sure, but everyone knows that and there aren't many angles to spin it. This seemed like an episode where Matt and Trey thought the idea was solid, but couldn't work out how to stretch it to a full half-hour's worth of material or grow their message into anything bigger than its most basic form.
Stan's grandpa - another character we haven't seen in a while, reiterating the point I made last week about the way the programme has gradually built up an exceptionally vivid supporting cast - bought his grandson a tacky bolo tie for $6k on the Shopping Channels. Stan decides he'd rather have the money, so tries to trade it in at a Cash For Gold shop, only to get offered decreasing and dispiritingly low sums of money, and then a burrito. His outrage leads him to protest both the Cash For Gold shops and Shopping Channel salesmen, tracking the cheap jewelry back to its source in the hope of stopping the cycle of exploitation.
There were a number of interesting ideas put into play which never went anywhere. The first was that Stan, usually the show's moral centre, only became angry after being unable to make any money out of the bolo tie himself. Until he realised the trinket was effectively worthless to him, the exploitation of his grandpa was, at best, a minor concern. Rather than playing up this angle, of how people are willing to sit by and let abuses happen so long until they personally are inconvenienced, or pointing out how Stan was ready to exploit his grandpa's generosity to make a little cash, the episode mostly played his quest straight, positioning him as the good guy against the evil system, with little nuance in-between.
That's not to say the system doesn't deserve to be labelled the way it is: another nice idea came in the form of Cartman's equation (his explanation of it was the episode's funniest joke), which equated the Shopping Channel / Cash For Gold scams with a modern form of alchemy. This was developed in a loose way, through a short sequence showing how the gold in the bits and pieces sold on the Shopping Channel end up getting recycled and sold back to people (a sequence repeated a second time, as if to prove how little fresh material Matt and Trey were able to mine from their thesis, even if the acapella soundtrack was fun) but there didn't seem to be much point to it. If anything, the final suggestion that it was people's generosity which counted, with Stan ending up buying his grandfather a picture frame so he wouldn't feel lonely anymore, felt uncharacteristically, unjustifiably forgiving: the system is wrong, but that's OK so long as you use it for the right reasons?
The shock value aspect of the episode came through a number of individual segments, rather than an escalating whole (which can be a reasonably effective way of doing it). The exploitation of the elderly was the most effective, mainly thanks to the moving story Stan's grandpa told of not being able to remember what his beloved dog looked like, a subtle way of conveying that he was buying his family all the Shopping Channel crap because he wanted to make them happy while he was still alive. South Park has become devastatingly good at sneaking emotional power into its episodes - see Kenny using his Mysterion alter-ego to protect and console his little sister in last season's finale 'The Poor Kid' - wth its use of understatement once again its biggest strength: the use of timed silences in Cartman ripping into Stan's bolo tie at the bus stop was similarly excellent, albeit going for laughs rather than poignancy.
The other shock value segments involved Stan calling up the Shopping Channel and demanding the salesman commit suicide immediately for his immoral actions, a joke which was funny at first but became tiresome through repetition. The coda, in which the salesman really did kill himself, felt in desperate need of a point, with the joke having worn thin and not much tangible relevance to the episode's message. The image of blood splattering over the rotating jewelry table might have been more potent had the episode found something original to say in the build-up.
In the meantime, Cartman set up his own shopping channel, which was mostly an excuse for the same old jokes repeated a third time (Ridiculous discounts! Manipulative sales pitches! Senile customers!) and to give the character an excuse for an f-bomb laden rant, which was pretty amusing, delivered with trademark gusto, but nothing we haven't seen before, specifically in Human CentiPad last year. South Park has been in wonderful form recently, but in an episode showing only flashes of the greatness it has so regularly achieved over the past season, it accidentally proved its own point: Cash For Gold is an enticing offer, but the rewards will never reach your expectations.
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