In the lead-up to the South Park Season 22 premiere, Comedy Central was marketing the show’s return with the hashtag #CancelSouthPark. Now we know why. The episode opened with business as usual—the kids were going over the results of a math quiz, and Cartman was being a jerk. Then a school shooting broke out, but instead of jumping into action, the kids and their teacher kept carrying on, raising their voices to discuss the math quiz over the gunfire so they could hear one another. SWAT team members ran into the room searching for the shooter, but the kids and teacher acted as if they were invisible. As if the shooting itself wasn’t happening. Of course it was happening. We overhear the SWAT team reporting that the shooter has been killed and we see a body wheeled out of the school as the kids start to head home, but when Stan’s mom Sharon greets him with a mix of relief, shock, and concern, the kids act like she’s crazy. “What’s up Stan’s mom’s ass?”, Cartman asks.
This was jarring for a number of reasons, but South Park’s take on school shootings came as a bit of a surprise. The show has been criticized in the past for taking an indifferent stance on hot-button political issues, or poking fun at the public’s concern or overreaction to matters they feel are important. This isn’t necessarily true for the entirety of the show’s run, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone do have a bit of an “everyone’s acting crazy” disposition at times.
In the case of this premiere episode, however, the show’s disdain for America’s indifference to gun violence was palpable. As the episode progresses, Stan’s mom is painted as hysterical for being outraged at the increasingly frequent school shootings. The rest of the parents and kids quite literally pay these shootings no mind—they’ve become so commonplace that they’re a minor inconvenience, nothing more. Butters has been outfitted with an assault rifle as hall monitor, and this is treated as totally normal.
The normalization of gun violence—specifically school shootings—is the aim of this premiere episode, and it’s somewhat uncharacteristically severe in its takedown. Stan’s dad Randy assumes Sharon is going through menopause, which would explain her “exaggerated” emotions, but the episode ends not with the town coming around to Sharon’s outrage. Instead, Sharon apologies for overreacting. In the closing moments, she receives a call that there’s been yet another school shooting, and this time Stan was shot. Her response, after being shamed for caring about these shootings? “It’s not the end of the world.”
It was a gut-wrenching final line, and one that underlined the normalization that school shootings have received across the country as they’ve become so commonplace. In 2018 alone, there have been at least 20 incidents in which a gun was discharged on a school campus in the United States. Our country’s reaction to each incident has become predictable to the point of it being mundane, and that’s exactly what this South Park episode was getting at.
It’s rare that South Park takes such a strong stance or such searing aim at a particular topic, which is part of what made this episode so striking. Sure it had jokes—Cartman’s storyline revolved entirely around his dislike for Black Panther—but it’s not a coincidence that the episode ends on that jaw-dropping final line instead of a joke.
South Park has been dinged plenty over the last two decades for a variety of reasons: being too political, not political enough, too indifferent, etc. The Season 22 premiere, however, felt like something special. It felt like Trey Parker and Matt Stone had something to say, something about which they felt strongly, and they made this statement without pulling any punches. Some may have found the episode in poor taste or too bleak. I think its anger is justified, and it’s nice to see that 22 seasons in, South Park still has bite.