The first half of South Park's sixteenth season has been of mixed quality, but goes into its summer break on a reasonably strong note. As much fun as it is that the series now sets so many of its episodes on an epic scale, it's always nice when it pulls back to Cartman and co. interacting as schoolchildren, with a storyline grounded in whatever South Park might interpret as reality. This is a series with plenty to say about human nature, and children in a playground are perfect fodder for exploring the topic in a disarmingly innocent, if typically unbridled, way.
'Cartman Finds Love' pulled off the trick confidently, using the purity of childhood love as a springboard for tackling a society determined to overcomplicate and politicise everything. The children of South Park Elementary (and everywhere else in the world, probably) would like to consider themselves as grown-ups, able to interact with the world on the same level as their parents. When the best available adult role models are the citizens of South Park, though, that's not the best idea: this is a town ready to panic or raise uproar about just about anything, so mixed-race romances were never likely to go down well.
One of the things the episode did well was how most of the children were actually completely unaffected by any of the prejudices voiced by the adults, represented by new girl Nichole's parents, or Cartman, whose attempts to emulate adulthood have always involved him adopting and inflating the worst characteristics of the world around him. He's a compelling character because he is so completely driven by deep-rooted insecurities, leading to his obsessive desire to shape the world as he believes it should be, where he is the arbiter of all that is right and therefore the kewwwwwlest boy around.
Stan, Kyle and their friends are happy showing their burgeoning interest in more grown-up experiences through forming social networks, in this case revolving around young love. They can enjoy their attraction to one another, unencumbered by adult fears and responsibilities, whereas Cartman is incapable of seeing anything other than a cause he needs to get behind, to convince himself of his own higher purpose. When he pretends, wonderfully, to be involved in a gay relationship with Kyle (all the funnier for their history of mutual loathing), he paints himself as a martyr, suffering for his lover's inability to come to terms with his true feelings. In Cartman's mind, homosexuality is something fearful. To the other children, it was no scarier or more alien than any other kind of relationship.
Many of the episode's best jokes came from the contrast between Cartman adding layer upon layer of insidious meaning and devious manipulation onto something the other children were treating as silly and fun. Upon discovering Nichole had a crush on Kyle rather than Token, the girls teased her and sang the 'sitting in a tree' song. Cartman, on the other hand, was outside the window, screaming as though the world was about to end. His deceptions were made funnier by how unnecessary they were: Nichole at first said she wasn't particularly interested in Token, but a few hours stuck in a locker room - admittedly with a food platter, board games and massage oil, aka the vital ingredients of any romance - changed her mind. What Cartman saw as a plot of Game Of Thrones complexity, hilariously mirrored in Mr. Garrison's 'history' class, was actually just two people getting together on the sweetly meaningless basis of them both liking each other, so why not? It was, of course, all worth it for the Where's Wally / Waldo-esque sight of him popping up in the background of each of their dates.
The twist was that while Cartman had fixed them up to avoid any inter-racial romances in the playground - his locker room trick had apparently enjoyed repeated success - the adults were so desperate to feel liberal that they encouraged Nichole to date a white boy, instead of the cliché of pairing up with someone from the same race. ('Just try the white meat. I know it’s a little dry, but there’s a lot more of it!'). Even Cartman cannot compete with that degree of overwrought social guilt: he is at least honest enough to know what he wants and unashamedly do everything in his power to make it happen. Nichole's parents are acting one way to convince themselves they are everything their actions actually say they are not.
Some of this season's 'theme' episodes have laid on their ideas a bit too thickly, but this was an elegantly struck blow at the inherent hypocrisy of ideas like 'positive discrimination'. While Token later claims to have only not pursued Nichole from the start for essentially the same reasons as given by her parents, it's obvious his reaction was a result of his disgust at Cartman trying to pair them up on skin colour alone, rather than any such natural fears on his part.
Whilst this episode wasn't as moving as last year's mid-season finale, the outstanding You're Getting Old, it struck the best balance of any episode this season between theme and humour, delivering a regular flow of laughs through a simple story, backed up with an evocative and multifaceted theme. There were a number of terrific touches, such as the fiendish efficacy of Cartman's Batmobile line, or delightfully idiotic 'Halitosis Kidz' on-court demonstration ('A good try!'). Only the amusing-but-sudden ending and repetitive material involving Cartman's 'Cupid Me' fell a little flat, but they're negligible marks against an episode that sent South Park's inconsistent sixteenth season into its summer break on just the right combination of funny, clever and sweet.
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