These and many other weighty topics were addressed Wednesday night in, well, “Stunning and Brave,” the 22-minute Season 19 premiere of Comedy Central’s “South Park” — one in which a show long praised and/or hated for its irreverence seemed to wrestle with its identity.
At the beginning of the episode, South Park Elementary is introduced to a new character: PC Principal, a school administrator “sick and tired of how minority groups are marginalized in today’s society” — with the demeanor of a foul-mouthed frat brother.
“I’m here because this place is lost in a time warp!” the principal screams at students. “Like it or not, PC is back and it’s bigger than ever!”
The first target in PC Principal’s PC campaign: Kyle. He is called to the carpet for making a simple statement: “I don’t think Caitlyn Jenner is a hero.”
“This kind of transphobic and bigoted hate speech isn’t going to fly here, bro,” PC Principal says. “I thought we were all on board that Caitlyn Jenner is an amazing beautiful woman who had the exquisite bravery of a beautiful butterfly flying against the wind. And then this s— flies out of people’s mouths!”
PC Principal falls in with other like-minded meatheads, who form a PC fraternity that looks, more or less, like Animal House. But even as the brothers hold keggers, they espouse a motto perhaps unfamiliar among Greek systems fighting hazing and rape charges: “No problematic language here, bro!” These guys “love nothing more than beer, working out, and that feeling you get when you rhetorically defend a marginalized community from systems of oppression.”
PC Principal’s obvious foil is Cartman — the most disrespectful character in “South Park,” if not TV history. But Cartman is reluctant to take on the new challenge — until he gets a pep talk from his friends, who encourage him to emulate his hero: New England Patriots quarterback and Donald Trump fan Tom Brady.
Friend: “What does Tom Brady do after breaking the rules?”
Cartman: “Deny and subvert.”
Friend: “What would Tom Brady say if he got caught shoplifting?”
Cartman: “Everybody shoplifts. Why you comin’ down on me?”
Cartman agrees to “Tom Brady this thing.” But he is beat to a pulp by PC Principal, who foils Cartman’s attempts to frame him as a pedophile — like “the spokesman for Subway.”
“Did you just use a term that excludes women from an occupation?” PC Principal asks about Cartman’s use of “spokesman” instead of “spokesperson” while slamming the young man into a bathroom wall. “… Are you purposefully trying to use words that assert your male privilege?”
In the hospital recovering from his injuries, Cartman lapses into a fever dream in which he images himself as, simultaneously, Brady, Patriots coach Bill Belichick and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The internal dialogue provides perhaps the best distillation to date of the “Alice in Wonderland” qualities of DeflateGate — an incident where it sure seems like someone did something wrong, even if the NFL and the courts can’t quite decide on what.
Goodell: “You broke the rules.”
Brady: “F— you — you’re breaking the rules.”
Goodell: “Yeah, you broke the rules.”
Brady: “You broke the rules how you found out I broke the rules.”
Belichick: “Yeah, you broke the rules.”
Goodell: “I’m commissioner. I can break the rules because you guys broke the rules before. But I didn’t bust you enough.”
Belichick and Brady: “Just because you didn’t bust us enough for breaking the rules that doesn’t mean you can break the rules busting us now.”
Kyle, meanwhile, confesses why he doesn’t think Caitlyn Jenner is a hero. It isn’t because he doesn’t support her transition. It’s because he doesn’t like Caitlyn Jenner — and, for that matter, didn’t like her when she was known as Bruce Jenner.
“I didn’t like Bruce Jenner as a person when he was on ‘The Kardashians,'” Kyle says. “And I don’t suddenly like him now.” He adds: “Her.”
Cartman, rising to the occasion, then organizes an attack on the PC fraternity, which he floods with Syrian refugee children, pregnant Mexicans and Jared, formerly of Subway. To end the chaos, Kyle — though he still does not believe it — says that Caitlyn Jenner is a hero.
“There’s no other way to say it,” he says. “What she did took bravery, and she is absolutely stunning.”
Though offered in an absurd context, Kyle’s defeat seemed a moment of truth for “South Park.” Can the show continue to be as ribald as it’s been for two decades? PC Principal, after all, as character and metaphor, seems like he’s here to stay.
“At least we showed him that sometimes joking about un-PC things can actually be important because it starts a dialogue,” Cartman concludes as Kyle eats cake in the school cafeteria. Punchline: “What’s wrong, Kyle? You have your cake — and eat it, too.”
Questioning the political correctness of an episode that took on political correctness seemed an unenviable task. Wouldn’t any TV critic that took it on appear ridiculous, humorless, overserious, or all of the above?
“The irony of a PC person who claims to stand for justice beating up a kid is not lost on me,” Martha Sorren of Bustle wrote. “I see what South Park was trying to do. But, in making the PC people a bunch of white, violent frat guys, they made it seem like a bad thing to strive for correct language around transgender issues.”
She added: “It is a big deal when someone says ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ when talking about Jenner. She identifies as a woman and wishes to have people use the corresponding gender pronouns. Not doing so is harmful.”