Mr. Hankey needs help with his defecation suit.
Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.
The most frustrating episodes of South Park are those that can’t seem to pick one idea and commit to it. In the mad dash to draw in as many political and pop culture references as possible and cast the widest net, the series can wind up failing to do justice to any of its ideas. That’s really the biggest downside to the one-week production schedule. There’s precious little time for streamlining and refining these storylines. “The Problem With a Poo” illustrates that problem about as well as any episode in recent memory.
Like too many installments in the last few years, “The Problem With a Poo” tries to bite off way more than it can feasibly chew in the span of 22 minutes. There’s the #MeToo-era celebrity scandal angle, a spoof of the recent Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, another PC Principal/Vice Principal Strong Woman showdown and even a few jabs at The Simpsons and the controversies stirred up by the documentary The Problem With Apu. That’s really too much material to cram into one episode, especially given how awkwardly it all tied together.
The Kavanaugh parody in particular felt like it should have been its own episode, given how much fertile ground there is to explore there. But as with Season 21, there seems to be a clear desire to avoid tackling the dumpster fire that is the US political arena too directly or for too long. Understandable, but a little unfortunate in this case.
If there’s any one, consistent theme to this episode, it’s examining how we as a society are being forced to reexamine how we engage with our favorite celebrities in the #MeToo era. Mr. Hankey isn’t necessarily the most logical choice for that sort of storyline, given that he’s among the most innocent and well-intentioned characters on the show, but maybe that’s the point. The bones of that story are pretty solid. It’s more the muddled execution where so much fell flat this week.
Too often while watching this episode, I found myself questioning what point the writers were trying to make. The narrative often feels at odds with itself, as the episode is both trying to take an earnest look at how public figures deal with scandal in 2018 and poke fun at outrage culture (a favorite theme of the series in recent years). With the way the episode ends, we’re clearly supposed to mourn the loss of Mr. Hankey, as the beloved icon is booted out of town for offending the masses, but is the argument that he didn’t deserve to be fired for getting wasted on Ambien and harassing half of South Park Elementary on Twitter? Should celebrities and politicians not be held accountable for destructive behavior? If you accept Mr. Hankey as a stand-in for someone like Louis CK or Roseanne Barr, the implications are a little troubling, frankly. And all the more reason why trying to lump the Kavanaugh hearings into this mess of plot threads seems ill-advised.
The Problem With Apu star/writer Hari Kondabolu may have inadvertently illustrated the flaws in this episode’s half-hearted storytelling approach. Based on his tweet tonight, he seems to think South Park came down in support of his documentary, even though I got quite the opposite impression from that ending scene. But given how wishy-washy this episode is about trying to establish a moral, who’s to say what side of the fence South Park is truly on? It’s a case of the show settling for making fun of the stupidity of both sides rather than taking a clear stand on an issue.
To be fair, there were some very funny moments sprinkled throughout the episode. The callback to the premiere with the school shooting proves that gag has lost none of its grim humor. The way Mr. Hankey’s courtroom appearance painstakingly mocked Kavanaugh’s various mannerisms and generally petulant behavior was also amusing. And, of course, the Simpsons spoof was a great little moment of mockery, even if the underlying message didn’t quite hold water.
On the other hand, too much of the humor here relied on recycled jokes and diminishing returns – the Ambien gag being one notable example. The entire PC Principal/Vice Principal Strong Woman subplot also wore thin very quickly. It yielded a few great lines (“Sometimes PC Babies don’t even know what they’re crying about!”), but otherwise settled for rehashing the same bits over and over.