South Park: The Vaccination Special Was A Vast Improvement Over The Pandemic Special
Focusing on the kids instead of their parents was a fun throwback to the show’s classic era. “The Pandemic Special” followed Randy as he profited from the pandemic with a COVID-inspired weed strain and discovered that he created the virus when he went to China on an ill-fated business trip in “Band in China,” the episode that unsurprisingly got South Park banned in China. “The Pandemic Special” shared season 23’s problem of focusing too much on Randy and Tegridy Farms and too little on anything else. “Vaccination Special” refocuses the series on Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny as they try to salvage their fading, socially distanced “bro-ship” by stealing COVID vaccinations for their teachers. Randy only appears briefly, selling a new vaccine-themed strain.
In the past few years, South Park’s headline-ripping storytelling model has been impacted by the fact that the real-life political arena has become more absurd than any political satire. Parker and Stone have always used South Park to exaggerate reality, but that’s hard to do when there’s no room for exaggeration. Mr. Garrison has suffered from being the show’s Trump stand-in, but the “Vaccination Special” handled post-Trump Garrison perfectly. At the end of his controversial presidential term, Garrison hopes to return to South Park and for his life to go back to normal – but almost everyone in town hates him. This is a hilarious next step for Garrison’s character. He’s also been given a new Mr. Slave-esque sidekick in the form of the scantily clad Secret Service agent assigned to protect him, “Mr. Service.”
Upon returning to South Park, Garrison is ostracized by nearly everybody in the grocery store – except “the Whites.” The Whites, first introduced in season 21, are revealed in the “Vaccination Special” to be ardent QAnon believers, eagerly awaiting their next instructions from President Garrison. Garrison wants nothing to do with them and tells Bob White to “blow s*** out your d*******!” The Whites believe this is a coded message and work with South Park’s other Q supporters to decipher it. Through some wild mental gymnastics, they convince themselves he wants them to teach America’s youth about QAnon, so they found “Tutornon” to capitalize on teachers’ shortage and go maskless into kids’ houses to preach the teachings of Q.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of another season of the show, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have provided South Park fans with two hour-long specials: “The Pandemic Special,” released way back in September, which focused on the origins of the virus and the interminable uncertainty of endless lockdowns, and “South ParQ Vaccination Special,” released earlier this month, which took a more optimistic approach to the end of the pandemic and mixed in the chaos of the 2020 presidential election for good measure. While both provided plenty of laughs at a crummy time, the latter was a vast improvement over the former.
For starters, “The Vaccination Special” had a more cohesive plot than “The Pandemic Special,” which was more of a series of COVID-related sketches about Zoom calls and mask mandates loosely strung together by a story about Randy’s virus-themed pot strain. From the offset, “The Vaccination Special” establishes that everyone in town wants a COVID vaccine, and they’re in short supply – hilariously comparing Walgreens to an exclusive nightclub. There are plenty of COVID sketches laced into “The Vaccination Special,” like the vaccinated old people making out and riding motorcycles to show off their freedom to non-vaccinated adults, but they all serve the plot.
Within the first couple of scenes, “The Vaccination Special” do two things “The Pandemic Special” didn’t: focus on the show’s actual main characters and give them a goal to work toward. The boys’ teacher quits after they pull a prank on her, and they decide to make it up to her by getting her vaccinated. “The Pandemic Special” focused almost exclusively on Randy. A huge chunk of the story is dedicated to Randy’s semen magically curing COVID, which squandered an opportunity to satirize history as it unfolded. “The Vaccination Special” didn’t squander that opportunity.
Satirizing QAnon was a unique challenge for South Park because a conspiracy theory that wholeheartedly posits that there’s a child-murdering left-wing cabal run by Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey that secretly controls the world sounds more like a South Park storyline than an actual thing. It would’ve seemed impossible to make satire out of it, but Parker and Stone surprisingly nailed it. They took the conspiracy a step further, revealing this cabal’s ability to literally alter reality as “the elites” take over the show to cut away from “the truth” and transport Bob White into the snowy wilderness and turn him into a giant penis.
The ending of “Vaccination Special” was much stronger than that of “The Pandemic Special.” Where “The Pandemic Special” ended with everyone in town growing a mustache from smoking Randy’s semen and Randy telling Sharon he’ll probably make another special, “The Vaccination Special” offered a hopeful glimpse at the end of the pandemic. As the Israeli government arrives to vaccinate everybody in town, they all celebrate that their lives can go back to normal with a big party. One can only dream.
“The Pandemic Special” was a welcome return for the show in the middle of a challenging year. It had a ton of strong moments, like the police arming themselves to the teeth in military gear set to “Kickstart My Heart” or Butters’ frustration over the ever-expanding timeframe of when the pandemic will be over. Still, it never quite felt like the sum of its parts. This could be because it was the show’s first special, and the writers weren’t accustomed to the format yet, which is pitched somewhere between an extended episode and a condensed season. With their second special, they nailed down the pacing and structure of an hour-long South Park episode. The promise of COVID-era South Park is so tantalizing that it’s almost impossible to deliver on. But where “The Pandemic Special” fell short, “The Vaccination Special” succeeds.