In late October 2004, South Park aired one of its most iconic episodes—a pre-election installment called “Douche and Turd,” which crystallized the show’s nihilism, political and otherwise. The douche and turd were an on-the-nose symbol for the idea that in any given election, both politicians tend to be equally unappealing.
But on Wednesday night, the long-running animated show defied its central tenet—the one insisting that caring at all is the stupidest position to take in any argument. And it did so in a way that one might imagine could perplex its creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in their younger years. South Park closed its super-sized pandemic special with a simple, (mostly) earnest message: Vote.
The special is, by and large, precisely what one might expect. Sticking with a long-running plot line in which Stan’s father has become a successful pot farmer, Randy spends most of the special wringing his hands over whether or not Tegridy Farms should release a pandemic “special”—whether the world really needs one right now. Eric Cartman loves quarantine and revels in wielding a stick keeping people six feet away from him at all times.
Soon enough, though, the kids are forced back to school—and since their teachers do not feel safe returning to the building, the cops have taken over. And in one of many plot lines adopted for shock and abandoned in the blink of an eye, the police shoot Token, South Park Elementary’s one Black student, in the arm—an act that, shockingly, no one prosecutes.
But mostly, this special is about Randy discovering that he caused the pandemic. At first he thinks it was that bat he fornicated with while partying in China with Mickey Mouse—but then he realize it’s the pangolin he had sex with afterwards. If you’ve watched enough South Park you can likely guess the cure from here.
The real shock comes near the end of the special. At one point, Stan calls President Garrison—the show’s Trump stand-in—hoping he’ll help fight the virus in South Park. But the president informs Stan that COVID-19 has actually helped him finally fulfill his campaign promise: Getting rid of Mexicans. And at the very end of the episode, a scientist offers a ray of hope, promising that with collaboration scientists could soon find a cure—right before Mr. Garrison roasts him with a flamethrower.
“Don’t forget to get out and vote everyone,” Mr. Garrison says, breaking the fourth wall. “Big election coming up!”
Once known for its election episodes, South Park has struggled to tackle politics in recent years. Donald Trump has proven difficult for Stone and Parker to nail with their trademark apathy, and the show more broadly has been blamed for breeding the kind of detachment and “ironic” bigotry that fuel the alt-right.
But carnage aside, tonight’s message feels like a sincere plea for the show’s young viewers to get their butts into voting booths. That kind of earnestness would have felt inconceivable in the early aughts; hell, even 2016 wasn’t enough to push Stone and Parker past their “Douche” and “Turd” metaphor. Maybe these horrible times—and our somehow more horrible president—have finally pushed the show to a breaking point.