Last night’s South Park was a throwback in every sense of the word, bringing along both the good and the bad consequences of blatantly referencing one’s own styles and jokes. Titled “Gluten Free Ebola,” this episode primarily revolved around the gluten-free craze that has taken the internet by storm and exaggerating its implications in typical South Park fashion.
It was a positive throwback in the sense that a lot of the show’s older cast members that have gotten neglected recently in favor of celebrity impersonations made appearances. Sure, they were just used as small plot devices to be either on the gluten-free side or the sick-of-gluten-free side of the argument, but it was nice seeing them nonetheless. Also like the earlier years of South Park, the episode felt more restrained than its recent counterparts. It did not span the world in a huge epic story line, or involve one of the boys running a major corporation or something crazy like that. It was just a self-contained story in the little town of South Park.
“Gluten Free Ebola” opens with a reference to the previous episode in which the boys start a company and it quickly fails (read the full review and rundown here), which is also something the show has been neglecting to do in recent years. It has been a long time since the world of South Park has felt like any kind of coherent world. It is the same problem that most shows have when they go on too long – eventually the characters just became bland vehicles to move what insane plot the writers have to come up with to prove that their show still deserves to be on air and become interchangeable. On the surface it is a small thing but, if left intact, that continuity can be used to give jokes more depth and span multiple episodes naturally instead of just the straight parodies every single script like the show has been doing for years now.
Because of those events from the previous episode, Cartman, Kyle, Stan, and Kenny realize that everyone hates them due to how crass and annoying they got after having a successful business for a week. Following a grueling four hours at school where nobody likes them, they come up with the idea to throw a party to gain everyone’s friendship back. To announce their wild and crazy party, they decided to go on a live radio show, but the calls coming into the station quickly turn into gluten-free advocates asking if the party will have gluten-free products, followed by anti-gluten-free citizens who are annoyed by it all, including Mr. Garrison. From there, the story of the boys takes a backseat to the gluten-free angle.
It is shortly discovered afterwards that gluten also contains a chemical called “Poppycock” that causes certain body parts to fly off. After this, the episode devolves into yet another South Park story that takes something seemingly innocuous and pretends that it could be the end of the world. They have done this countless times before, sometimes even spanning several episodes, and the structure has certainly overstayed its welcome. Citizens of South Park find out that gluten causes loss of male appendages, everyone panics and gets rid of everything gluten, Stan ends up in a containment zone in a Papa John’s, blah blah blah the same thing you have seen for at least one episode in every South Park season for years.
The episode sloppily closes on Cartman having a visionary dream involving Aunt Jemima (that felt stupid to watch, it feels ever dumber to write) who tells him he must stop the anti-gluten craze and he goes through a hastily thrown together sequence to stop it. It almost feels as if the episode was intended to be a multi-part series but they thankfully did not have enough content for two episodes.
The biggest problems for this episode stem from the fact that there are not that many constructed jokes and an episode full of gluten-free references feels like it is about 10 months too late. Based on the title I assumed it would focus more on making fun of the Ebola hysteria, being that it is more current, but instead the episode went all in on gluten-free and only made very slight allusions to the breakout mimicking that of Ebola. Unfortunately none of the satire ever feels relevant to the situation going on in the real world so, instead of the usual on-point-if-not-all-that-funny episodes of years past that we have come to accept from South Park we get one that is equally unfunny as it is irrelevant.
There were of course some quick one line gags and a nice satire on how the general population takes the USDA’s food pyramid suggestions too literally, but some very short sequences actually being funny does not make for 20 minutes of eye rolling jokes.