Arts & Entertainment | September 15, 2016 9:00 am

When We Needed Acerbic Social Commentary the Most, “South Park” Punted

The show's 20th season debuted with muddled messages

Note: Spoilers ahead for last night’s South Park.

The National Anthem. The presidential election. Bathroom gender politics.

Following a summer of much sociocultural discontent, South Park maybe had too much material to play with for the first episode of its (wow, we’re old) 20th season.

Used to operating on a “topic of the week” premise to keep content fresh, the new season started off feeling overstuffed (you can watch the full episode here).

It kicked off on a high note: announcers at a children’s sporting event arguing over who would and wouldn’t stand for the Anthem (while the game itself goes ignored), the episode then dove into a search for a mysterious, highly offensive Internet commenter known only as SKANKHUNT42 (and seeming in every way, shape and form to be Cartman).

Cartman, meanwhile, walked around in a “Token’s Life Matters”  T-shirt and, in the guise of political correctness, castigated the girls of South Park for not having a sense of humor.

A myriad of subplots followed, including the hold-your-nose choice between Trump (well, Mr. Garrison) and Clinton (aka Giant Douche and Turd Sandwich) and a revamp of the National Anthem by J.J. Abrams that would “unite America.”

It’s all fine, though given creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s offend-everyone leanings, it was surprising that the biggest target of the night was … nostalgia? Characters across the show’s spectrum yearned for “member berries” (the title of the episode), aka talking berries that whisper things like “Member Chewbecca? ‘Member The Six Million Dollar Man?”

The most biting moment was actually when the berries went political: “Member when there were fewer Mexicans? Member Reagan?” It’s a nice swipe at the false memory of “better days” that politicians (one, especially) like to peddle.

In the end, however, nobody got slammed hard enough. The attacks on Trump (Mr. Garrison and running mate Caitlyn Jenner, who served no purpose) were obvious: if he wins, he doesn’t know what he’d do in office. Clinton was dubbed a “turd sandwich” without anything damaging being said about her actual candidacy; Stone and Parker’s analysis seemed to equate to “people just don’t like her.” Meanwhile, voice-of-reason Kyle bandied on about the concept of German Collective Guilt and his nuanced take was … well, not funny, if smarter than most of the episode’s other dilemmas. J.J. Abrams was thrown into the plot with nary a lens flare to be seen. Colin Kaepernick appeared but was never mentioned.

In essence, the show tried to pack a season’s worth of plots into one episode, which gave none of them enough time and space to evolve into something memorable.

The best joke? A thoroughly stupid, apolitical aside that hearkened back to South Park’s early days as a less complex comedy built on ribaldry and juvenilia.

“Cartman, vaginas don’t have balls.”