27th October, 2023
I watched South Park: Joining the Panderverse. I won’t go too much into the details, but basically the setting is that Cartman keeps having nightmares about an alternative universe where he and all his loved ones are diverse women. As Cartman's whole life seems to be consumed by the paranoia over woke Disney films and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy turning the entire world "totally lame", he tries to warn everyone about it and its consequences. Turns out such universe actually is real, and he ends up switching places with a black woman who also claims to be Eric Cartman.
Female Cartman was definitely the star of this special. Her voice actress was amazing and the character was just so much fun. I simply loved every scene with her! Also this special fed Kyman fans extra well.
Ever since Ghostbusters 2016, there has been a rise of these ”all-female remakes”. I never went to see Ghostbusters 2016 because the trailer seemed awful and my experience would have been in very bad faith. It definitely got way more attention than it should have. I have some issues with films like these. I’ve always been quite ”female oriented” in my tastes – I’ve been a big fan of magical girls and ”vintage girl literature” since my teens – and these all-female remakes have always gave me very complex feelings. To be frank, I don’t like them. They tend to have terribly annoying characters, shallow liberal feminism, boring jokes and in general they just do the bare minimum except with women. What I want to see is interesting stories about all kinds of women, not half-assed rehashes. I’ve stayed out of that conversation because I don’t like conflict and I’m not very good at expressing myself, especially in English. After Mulan, I won't watch another Disney rehash film anymore because I don't see the point of wasting my time with boring movies that have nothing to say and also are visually unpleasant to me (= not animation).
Of course, I'm not saying that all remakes are bad. I'm saying that many of them are just shallow.
This special felt both like love and hate letter to Kathleen Kennedy. She has been the producer and executive producer for many notable 80’s and 90’s generation X films such as Jurassic Park, Gremlins, Back to the Future and E.T. South Park’s main theme has always been movie industry and how it changes with American industry (and vice versa), and these are the films Trey and Matt grew up with and loved. The season 6 episode ”Free Hat” is about the unnecessary re-releases of these films, and it wasn’t the only time Indiana Jones was parodied in the show: there’s also the commentary about how Indy was literally raped (repeatedly) by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg because The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was… not good. Kathleen Kennedy was involved there, too.
Joining the Panderverse also mentions Indy. It always comes back to Indy, huh? I went to see Dial of Destiny this summer with an open mind. I had pretty much fun with it, but was it necessary? Not sure... I was pretty amazed how they managed to alter Harrison Ford’s face like that for the past scenes. I wouldn’t call it a multiverse movie though, but a time travel movie. To be honest, I didn’t expect all the Nazi time travel insanity even from an Indy film. Anyway, the female character thing in that film was made a bigger thing than she actually was. She was clearly a side character, and the main point of the film was Indy dealing with becoming old. I admit, that ending made me shed a tear. Of course, this film didn’t manage to outshine other big films this year: Barbie, Oppenheimer and Spiderverse.
Oh yes, Spiderverse. Panderverse? I guess everyone got that already when the special was announced. The ”multiverses are just lazy writing” was mentioned a lot. I agree to some point. In a way these special episodes are basically that kind of content: pandering to fans.
To be honest, I don’t think anyone praises the Spiderverse films for their particularly amazing writing but the artistic values and how they manage to tell a good story through that. You can’t deny the films were an absolute savior to Western animation. Since I’m an animation fan, I’ve never really understood the ”all style no substance” argument. I think that when it comes to audiovisual medium, the visuals ARE the substance. For good writing I’ll just grab a good book. Also you can't say "all style no substance" unless you've experienced the absurd 80's OVA production with absolutely bonkers narrative. That’s what I have to say about this matter. I do enjoy ”evil character” multiverses a lot. They always have such good, slutty character designs… Ok, next!
Back to Kathleen Kennedy. In the end, the episode felt rather sympathetic towards her, even though she was ripped in typical South Park way. But it definitely felt like a message from one producer to another. Because Matt and Trey grew with films she produced and ended up being producers in entertainment themselves, there’s probably also the conflicted feelings you get as a fan. I get that, as many time I notice that I just don’t find South Park as good as in the past, although I do still enjoy most new content, at least on meta level.
Kennedy ends up relying on "panderstone", an ancient piece of artificial intelligence that could make a film after film that "panders to everyone". However, not all humans agree with panderstone's supposedly perfect pattern, yet her ego won't stop her from trying. The problem with AI is that in the end, at least at this point, it doesn't really create anything new or think for itself but just builds very simple patterns from existing content. Although I'm a self-proclaimed luddite, I'm not completely anti-AI - I just don't find it very valuable when it comes to creativity. But for some execs, this seems to be enough. But after the panderstone's power has been used too much, it creates a portal to panderverse.
South Park has also faced the effects of AI. As a successful show that has been running for over 25 years, there are always people who try to rehash its success. The soul of South Park, however, is the humans behind it, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always been very strict about it being "their show". South Park made another episode about AI in this year's television season, where the 2021 musical film Cyrano was parodied and AI had the role of ghost writer in romance for men who are just not very good at it on their own. The episode ends with a segment written with ChatGPT, but it's exactly what you'd except AI-written South Park to be with shallow characterization that is still stuck in the 90's.
I've played around with South Park related AI stuff and it all comes down to this. You may be able to produce something where Kenny dies and Kyle and Stan reacted to it, but it will lack the meta commentary level of the real thing. At this point, South Park doesn't even talk about a town called South Park, but a show called South Park and the relationship the creators have with it. To fully enjoy it, you can't just passively consume the show and wait what Matt and Trey have to say about topic x. Also this special showed the evolution of Cartman's character and his ability to change as a person, which has been a theme ever since the Post Covid specials. This is also something that is ignored in "AI South Park", resulting him to be just "a fat, racist piece of shit" as Kyle called him.
How I saw this special, Matt and Trey also feel this paradox of laziness about their own production: past specials have dealt with burn out and not being confident in their ability to produce good content, but they still need to do it because of the too ambitious contract, so they can be rather understanding towards Kennedy’s downfall. Bob Iger's original release schedule for the new Star Wars was kind of insance, and they definitely took too much, too fast. Of course, South Park's thing has always been an insane release schedule, but when I heard about the contract with these 14 "movies", I got worried.
The panderstone represents laziness and comforming to safe patterns while covering that up with something ”pandering” (in this case, diversity). It's also about our complex relationship with technology and learning how to co-exist with it. Back when my dad taught me math in high school, he didn’t give me a permission to use a calculator. Whenever I reached for it, he told me to stop and count it in my head or on paper. He told me it’s because students use them too much these days they don’t learn to think. That part made me think of him.
Human evolution is very slow compared to the progression of technology. You still jump out of fear when you see a spider because you perceive it as a predator, although that's not very rational when you think about it. Spiders are just friendly silly guys. Our actual, modern threats are far more abstract and that's why it's more difficult to fear them. Anyway, I guess my point is to think about your irrational fear of spiders and then compare that with the fast evolution of technology and how it affects your daily life.
I agree with the message of this episode: the problem isn’t the diversity, but lazy film making that keeps doing the same shit over and over again. To me films like this are similar to worse kind of narcissistic otaku anime where the medium itself becomes a shallow product to consume that doesn’t try to show or tell anything interesting. Of course this is rather hypocritical of me to say, since I write more fanfiction than original fiction. I even do the worst offense possible and write AU stories where I just switch the characters with South Park characters. Anyway, creating stuff that you want to see is always a better way to spend time than whining about stuff you don't want to see - whether it's "woke" remakes, smutty non-con stories or certain ships you find icky.
I guess the message can be summed up like this: good entertainment is suffering because of the endless cycle of petty culture wars. This is my personal main issue with modern entertainment, along with the "post-ironic trend" where nothing can be genuine but has to be self-aware of the medium and itself. However, I believe that things can change. When Barbie came out and it became a massive hit, some people tried to manufacture another culture war around it - but since Barbie was genuinely a good movie that had many interesting things to offer, I think those people failed.
I thought the handyman parts were too repetitive to be funny. It’s still hard to get used to the neo South Park type of writing where the tempo is much slower and jokes are repeated many times. Same with the Karen jokes in the water wars specials. There was Elon and Zuck reference, though. I think that was pretty well put there and connected with the main themes. I just wish the execution was a bit different.
Kenny reminded me of those 2000s pseudo lesbian anime girls who are basically just self-insert character for horny guys. You know the type. It was rather funny. I can imagine her to be the type of character who just grabs everyone's boobs in the locker room. Also Kyle was the tsuntsun archetype (both female and male).
There were some dads turned into moms. Except they weren’t moms, because Butters still called Stephen ”dad”. I mean it’s not like the characters themselves change although the cast is different. That’s pretty much the point, and about the ”doing the bare minimum” I mentioned before. Once I read a blog post that gave guys a tip that to write good female characters you just need to write characters like you write men and then switch them into women. True, this might work sometimes with characters such as Ellen Ripley from Alien. But to write complex female characters, But in South Park context, this kind of thing was funny.
I’m not sure if I saw Tweek at all. I had some speculations. I think we all need to accept the fact that Tweek has once again become a dead character he was before Tweek x Craig and move on, just like how Cartman managed to moved on from crappy new Disney films. The real Tweek is still in our hearts.
If you want to learn how to ”do stuff” AND not deal with egomaniac billionaires, I recommend starting your own personal Neocities website and learning how to do all kinds of fancy stuff there. It’s lots of fun!
For true pandering, just add a hot goth/alt girl.