It would be easy to say that what keeps South Park feeling relatively fresh after fifteen-odd years on air is its readiness to satirise current events through its raunchy, absurdist filter, but more important than that is how creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone nearly always layer that satire with pointed social commentary. When The Simpsons attempts to catch onto a trend these days, its approach rarely involves anything more than referencing it and expecting laughs because, hey, here's that thing you know about, but now in cartoon form. That's funny, right? Parker and Stone, on the other hand, get their series involved in the debate surrounding the issues they tackle, whether civil liberties, the impermanence of meme culture, or how the anti-bullying industry is indirectly responsible for propagating the very acts it is trying to stop.
There's every chance some might interpret 'Butterballs' as a creed against the creators of the recent Bully movie, and though there was a little criticism directed their way in terms of their naivety about the real-world effects it might have, most of the episode's ire was directed at those ready to exploit the initial good intentions for their own self-aggrandisement.
For all the talk about stopping bullying in South Park Elementary, the only person whom no-one bothers listening to is Butters. Stan takes up his cause, but mostly because it increased his popularity with girls. Everyone who put Butters in the spotlight as 'the victim' seemed only interested in him as a symbol rather than an individual enduring humiliations unique to him, as opposed to a more marketable 'epidemic'. The most obvious example was the talk show host going for applause by repeating the words he had forced out of Butters against his generic 'bully', even though the message was directed at the host himself. Mr. Mackey's uniform 'bullying is bad' advice was no more ready to engage the issue on a personal level, rather than treating it as a uniform issue.
Having Butters' bully be his grandmother made the point that, easy as it is to focus on school bullies, it's hardly something which goes away after graduation. Bullies exist in all spheres of life, no matter the age (or gender, or race) of the people involved. Bully director Lee Hirsch and writer Cynthia Lowen might have made their movie with the best will in the world, to highlight an issue that seems to be getting worse, but what they show is not far removed from what is happening in society at large, where violence is becoming more acceptable and things we were once appalled by now seem commonplace. I don't know if Cartman's rant about popstars talking about their vajayjays was meant to play into this idea, but it seemed tangentially relevant insofar as how desensitised we are to pornographic imagery as well as violence.
Bully might be seen as only looking at a microcosm of a more troubling social evolution. We can sympathise with vulnerable children suffering, but are less concerned when it is happening in the adult world: in the workplace, there's an argument to be made that the bully is venerated for their strength, while the victim is derided as weak. Being bullied by people other than your peers is a more challenging prospect for many people to handle. It's unusual to think of the elderly as bullies, even though there's nothing to stop an angry young person being no different when old and grey. Butters' grandmother tormented her grandson because of his youth, taking advantage of her position as the eldest member of the Stoch family to avoid being called out on it. If anyone had sought to get to the roots of Butters' problem, one wonders how seriously they would have taken it. Equally so, Butters' climactic riposte was satisfying, but no less cruel in many ways than the physical pain she had been inflicting on him.
On the plus side, poorly aimed though Stan's anti-bullying campaign was, it delivered a fantastic musical set-piece full of wonderful background details, characteristically biting lyrics, and Cartman getting another chance to indulge his passion for dressing as female pop singers. Though this episode was heavier on commentary than laughs, the two songs easily compensated for the shortfall. Broadway Bro Down was a highlights from last season's very strong second half, and I suspect Stan's video will be remembered similarly fondly in the future, even if the surrounding episode is probably too specifically of its time to stand up to later viewings.
Despite its poignancy, it is a shame 'Butterballs' didn't make the most of its non-musical comedic opportunities, because the potential was there. Whether it's advisable to make any form of bullying funny is debatable, but the only laugh to come out of Butters being bullied by his grandmother was in her hideous costume to counteract Professor Chaos, and the 'gummy bears' torture: the episode could have done with more forms of bullying specific to what a grandmother might come up with.
The repeated encounters in the boys' bathroom, meanwhile, quickly became repetitive, even if the point being made (about how bullying is rarely just between two people, and is often the cause of the bully suffering at others' hands) was a potent one. Jesus' appearance at the end was a nicely played barb at how religion might be seen as history's ultimate bully, while Kyle getting the better of Stan and exposing his weak arguments for his behaviour (analogous in real-life to the Weinstein's righteous campaign against being asked to cut Bully for a PG-13 rating, which they did anyway once the story's shelf-life was sufficiently spent) was a nifty reversal, but most of the others satisfied themselves with making the same point over and over again.
Nevertheless, this was one of the new season's strongest episodes, with satire well-argued and focused enough to present its message's many layers without getting bogged down in moralising, while making up for a lack of memorable jokes with two wonderful musical numbers. The depth of Parker and Stone's opinions on the bullying topic gave the episode a clarity and passion that others this season have struggled for, making it more resonant even while others have been funnier.
OTHER ARTICLES YOU MAY ENJOY