South Park, at its best, manages to skewer even the heaviest subjects with exquisite precision, leading to hearty chuckles that you, the viewer, feel ashamed of making. Take "Night of the Living Homeless" for example – an episode that lambasted discrimination against the homeless in a parody of George A. Romero's zombie movies. However, at its worst, South Park takes a scatter-gun approach to satire that fails to land any piercing shots and, crucially, isn't that funny.
South Park season 23 episode 1 comes somewhere between the two, with one storyline missing the mark and the other offering solid laughs and astute observations.
The first storyline begins at Tegridy Farm, Randy's marijuana farm that has grown considerably since season 22. There's a problem: Stan, acting as the business's accountant, has found that they're no longer making huge profits. Why? Because the residents of South Park are starting to grow their own marijuana at home. Randy takes matters into his own hands and heads to the courts. Eventually, after losing that battle, the bumbling father teams with a corporation named Med Men, who also want to ban people growing their own drugs. By co-operating with the money men, though, Randy loses his friend: Towelie, the anthropomorphic towel.
Aside from a few jokes about babies being put in danger by home-grown weed, there's very little to this particular story arch that's funny. Yes, Randy gives up his Tegridy Farm's integrity to join forces with this big pharma company, which is a fun play on words, but that's about all. The towel jokes, in particular, do not land.
Then there's the ICE story, the stronger of the two. It starts with Cartman making some particularly un-Cartman-y statements. "We're not the ones who messed up the world," he says, attempting to be esoteric, "but we're the ones who have to pay the price." Is the loud-mouthed kid about to turn a new leaf and become the next Greta Thunberg, standing against climate change and the other things affecting our future? Of course not. After seeing an ICE team imprison an El Salvadorian family, Cartman concludes that the world's actually OK because anyone can be imprisoned by a single phone call to ICE – a power he uses immediately by calling the law on Kyle’s family, who are taken away within seconds.
Kyle ends up being detained and put behind bars. The ICE officers, though, soon notice that Kyle's the only white child at their camp and take him out for questioning, promising there's been a mistake. The officers soon realise Kyle's Jewish, and having a Jewish child locked in their camp could be bad. This analogy, that these Trump administration-approved camps are similar to concentration camps, works well and never becomes preachy. Kyle's interview with the ICE officers also gives way to the funniest joke of the episode: "Mexican Joker". Kyle tells his imprisoners that, by keeping children behind bars, the American government is causing resentment to brew within those kids, which could bread – to put it in terms the ICE officers will understand – supervillains.
Now, South Park fans know that all adults on the show are dumb, and here the ICE officers misunderstand Kyle and believe there is actually a "Mexican Joker" among the children. This leads to a ridiculous assembly where the imprisoned children are shown a puppet "Mexican Joker" raping a princess. It's hate-yourself-for-laughing funny and a reminder at just how great South Park can be.
Eventually, at the episode's conclusion, the two storylines meet. Randy blows up some marijuana gardens and the incident is blamed on the "Mexican Joker". It all just about comes together, though Randy's victory speech, with Godfather-like music playing over the top, doesn't quite deliver – the ICE story, though, does well to lampoon the Trump administration without being heavy-handed.
By aiming to mock too much, this episode fell short. Still, South Park's back, and, seeing as last season – which was likewise serialised – only got better and better, fingers crossed season 23 will too.
Verdict: A mixed bag that takes aim at too many targets without successfully hitting any.
Want more South Park? Check out our rankings of the best South Park episodes of all time.