The best Season 23 episode of South Park was its 8th episode, “Turd Burglars” - hear me out.
“Turd Burglars”, an episode about fecal transplants and microbiomes, was the only episode this season that I thought could compare to South Park’s best, in that it had a simple central idea that was explored comedically through strong character and story choices. There was never a comedic lull in this episode, as each moment contributed towards this strong central idea, and the drive of the episode. Even though parts of the episode were characteristically absurd and grotesque (with an obscure Dune reference included for good measure), and things crescendoed to an absurd/gross final act, the storyline progressed and escalated relatively logically and with good momentum.
In contrast, the rest of Season 23, while also very funny in parts, fell prey to an issue that I have found with recent South Park episodes: a lack of focus. While the show’s larger move toward serialized storylines played a role in this, I hesitate to place all of the blame on the idea of serialization itself - season/series-long story arcs - as the culprit. Serialization can work in comedy (Silicon Valley, The Last OG, and even previous seasons of South Park are proof enough of this). However, if the show “loses the thread” (for lack of a better term) of the episode, or episode arc, regardless of if things are serialized or not, the focus/comedy will suffer as a result.
Having said that, while serialization itself does not necessarily ensure diminishing comedic returns (or “lost threads”, as it were), the “Tegridy Farms” serialized storyline of Season 23 sure did. Randy Marsh’s marijuana farm story was a major part of all but three episodes this season, and its inclusion in an episode all but ensured that the episode would feel overly complicated and unfocused.
The main issue here is that the “Tegridy Farms” storyline brought in too many additional ideas that often did not cohere well to one another and the more episodic storylines. For example, episode three’s “Shots!!!” was divided into two main sub-plots - the “Tegridy Farms” plot, and an episode-specific plot about anti-vaxxers. One could imagine the antivaxx storyline being its own great episode of South Park - similarly to this season’s best episode, it deftly explored the funny aspects of a theme through character motivation and storytelling, making a larger statement about the theme in the process.
However, the inclusion of the “Tegridy Farms” plot also meant the inclusion of plot points related to Marsh family drama, doing business with China, pot farming, and Randy’s relationship with his business partner (who also happens to be a towel), leading to an episode that had too much happening for it to work as a cohesive whole. This excess of disparate ideas, and the fact that they did not really fit together well, defined all of the “Tegridy Farms” episodes this season.
Overall, nine out of Season 23’s ten episodes had this focus issue, whether that was because of (1) this serialized storyline that left the writers trying to juggle 5+ more balls-than-needed per episode, or (2) the focus of the episode not being defined enough when it was self-contained - as seen in Episode 7 (“Board Girls”) and Episode 9 (“Basic Cable”). This lack of focus lead to a very recognizable feeling of boredom as a viewer, and is where Episode 8, “Turd Burglars”, sets itself apart.
“Turd Burglars”, while not about the most important subject (when comparing the subject of fecal transplants to subjects like Chinese oppression or ICE detention centers, there really is no contest), was the most comedically effective, as it was the only episode that did not have this focus problem. There were still a good number of ideas included in this episode (among them fecal transplants, “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order”, female social group dynamics, Dune, and Tom Brady) but these ideas were balanced logically and effectively - in part because the writer’s weren’t required to also suddenly balance everything that came with Randy Marsh’s pot farm story. Put another way, the sum of the ideas in this episode was greater than its parts (due to how creatively they were linked), as opposed to the rest of this season, where the number of comedic ideas proved a detriment.
Ultimately, “Turd Burglars” works because of its simplicity. It originates from a simple premise - that of the idea of fecal transplants - and runs with the idea in an absurd, but not too-absurd-as-to-break-the-story-and-character-structure-and-become-boring kind of way. Understandable character motivations (the South Park women wanting clean microbiomes, the boys wanting a copy of "Jedi: Fallen Order") take the episode in unexpected and wonderfully depraved directions. Absurd story choices (Dune references, including Kyle learning about microbiomes and slowly becoming a heightened being who knows where Tom Brady stores his poop) are used strategically and work in the context of the larger episode. I really enjoyed it from beginning to end.
Overall, while I didn’t think I would like an episode in which three women vomit and diarrhea all over a restaurant full of people, much less have it be my favorite comedy episode of a season (and one of my overall favorites of the year), South Park made it happen. The key, it turns out, came down to focus.
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