Twenty years on and South Park is both entirely familiar and totally different. While the core gang remains the same, Randy and Mr. Garrison are likely to spend as much time on screen as Cartman, Stan, Kyle, and Kenny. Seasons have also begun to continue storylines for multiple episodes, something Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to be leaning heavily on in season 20.
As always, the first episode offers a cynical view of American politics today, the media being the first caught in South Park’s crosshairs. “Member Berries” begins with a South Park Elementary girls volleyball game. The audience is packed, both parents and reporters in attendance, all there to see who will protest during the national anthem against an internet troll. It serves as a poignant criticism of the way news organisations have begun focussing heavily on sportsmen’s actions during games, one that proves slightly off kilter.
Attention turns to how the government is willing to deal with the ‘problem’ of people ‘disrespecting’ their sovereign song. Who could possibly help reboot the National Anthem, making it sound both familiar but adding a slightly new twist? Non-other than JJ Abrams of course! The Star Trek and Star Wars: The Force Awakens director’s solution: to merely make an announcement at the beginning of the old National Anthem saying people can kneel, sit or stand, thus ruining the plans of anyone trying to protest.
Then there’s Mr. Garrison (his face is now covered in orange make-up) who is still vying for President of the United States with running partner Caitlyn Jenner, an on-going joke from season 19. Up against Mr. Garrison is Hillary Clinton, the two known as ‘Giant Douche’ and ‘Turd Sandwich’ respectively, playing off an old, rather tired joke from previous seasons - a joke that probably should have remained retired but has *that* nostalgia value.
As you may have picked up, nostalgia is central to “Member Berries”, the episode’s titular fruit being one of the core problems currently afflicting the fictional America. Randy - the character Trey and Parker admitted they now share most in common with - is the person who comes into contact with these member berries, a new talking fruit that acts as a relaxant. Everyone is raving about the quasi-drug as they remind the user of the good ol’ times of Chewbacca and the original Ghostbusters. However, Randy discovers the berries also ask people to think back to “when there were fewer Mexicans,” something he - and hopefully viewers - immediately takes issue with. There berries will no doubt become a central to the story as season 20 progresses, most likely tying in to why people are voting for Mr. Garrison (the Trump-like character making outrageous statements, many of which he is attemting to take back).
Then there’s the kids' story. The aforementioned troll bullying the girls of South Park Elementary is thought by all to be Cartman, yet is revealed to be someone entirely different. Surprisingly, it's one of the episodes low points, offering far less to enjoy, particularly Cartman’s crass speech to the rest of the school about how 'girls are funny guys, get over it'.
Yet, the children’s story arc has only just begun. While “Member Berries” offers fewer jokes than some classic South Park episodes, it acts as a rather brilliant set-up for season 20. What’s hinted at - through the titular berries and Mr. Garrison v Hillary Clinton - is a series that spares no prisoners and will hopefully be the cynical, on-the-nose comedy we need during this turbulent US election. Fingers crossed they don’t back down.
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