When I was writing the “South Park Grows Up” piece I didn’t know what the season premiere was going to be like (incidentally, the official Canadian premiere on the Comedy Network is March 28), since the episodes are produced at the last minute and therefore not available in advance. So I was actually more worried that the season premiere would disprove my thesis than that it wouldn’t be a good episode. That’s the bizarre sense of priorities that journalism creates.
Anyway, it was a fairly good episode, though certainly not one of the best, and it did once again confirm that South Park is much more about character comedy and character relationships than shock humour or politics. I mean, of course the shock humour is very important; they deliberately went for the most shocking thing they could find, an entire episode about AIDS. (This was a bit similar to the AIDS jokes in the sixth season premiere, “Jared Has Aides,” but nobody actually had the virus in that episode.) But I don’t notice much controversy about the episode, do you? Heck, even the episode itself was built around the joke that AIDS is out of the media spotlight and dealing with the issue is “retro.” And while the show did have some funny things to say about the habit of treating diseases the way we treat any other media event (the media forgets about them even though they never go away), the satire wasn’t particularly biting. As usual, SP is at its satirical best when just saying nasty things about celebrities, in this case Jimmy Buffett.
So the bulk of the episode was just another story about the longest-standing, most important relationship on the whole show, Cartman and Kyle. (Plus a bit of Cartman and Butters, the second most-important relationship.) It upped the stakes a bit by having Cartman do literally the worst thing he’s ever done to Kyle, but really it followed the familiar formula, and the reason it wasn’t a great episode is that it just didn’t have enough twists on the formula: Cartman and Kyle try to one-up each other but at some point are forced to team up, with Kyle getting angrier and angrier at the fact that nobody except him really sees how horrible Cartman is. It is a very, very strange relationship and, like all good sitcoms, South Park depends on funny/strange relationships for most of its humour. Plus some AIDS jokes and Jimmy Buffett-bashing.