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First Click: Maybe South Park can make America okay again

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November 30th, 2016

There's something about getting older that makes us blind to the past. Unlike the "hosts" inhabiting Westworld, our human memory is imperfect. A saving grace that prevents us from having to relive the same traumatic episodes over and over again. It’s a defense mechanism that more often than not results in an over-romanticized past. We remember the good parts of toxic relationships or dim-witted sitcoms with the same sense of longing. Think about it: what sane person would give birth to a second child or finance a reboot of The Munsters if we possessed the faculty of total recall? I used to think it was an evolutionary advantage — now I'm not so sure. What's the point in longing for a past that never existed if it destroys progress toward a better future?

The entertainment industry is absolutely throbbing with nostalgia as people increasingly look backwards for sources of joy. At the beginning of the 2016 we had to endure Fuller House, the Full House sequel dubbed "a forced march down memory lane" by The New York Times. Last summer we suffered "Fat Axl" gyrating along with both AC/DC and Guns 'N Roses. Last weekend it was the revival of a "weirdly hostile" Gilmore Girls. It was bad enough when Hollywood's "everything's a remix" machine was obsessively churning out delightful but vacuous rom-coms like You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, or Notting Hill and Bridget Jones. Now it's pivoted to "everything's a remake" by rebooting every successful TV series, comic book, or film ever to turn a profit.

Non-original films now account for nearly half of US box-office revenues according to CLSA analyst Vasily Karasyov. An estimate that rings true if you look at the top domestic grossers of 2016 — a list dominated by retreads such as Finding Dory, Captain America, The Jungle Book, Ghostbusters, Jason Bourne, and Deadpool. The Telegraph maintains a list of 25 films set for reboots and remakes in the next five years, including a new Mary Poppins, wherein Julie Andrews will undoubtedly make a cameo appearance to widespread audience appeal.

Many of you might direct me to last year's Star Wars as an example of something great that nostalgia begot. But what is your baseline for greatness? Is The Force Awakens a great film by the standard set by Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Spotlight, or is it just great fan service? Don't get me wrong: my 12-year-old self was absolutely entertained by it, from the opening crawl scored by John Williams until the destruction of an even deadlier Death Star. But I wouldn't call what was arguably a remake of the 1977 original a great film.

South Park's season 20 has been railing against this very likable brand of J.J. Abrams nostalgia for seven episodes already, as the show's creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone try making sense of present-day America. It all started in season 19 when the two took turns mocking political correctness, outrage culture, and Whole Foods elitism. Season 20 digs even further thanks to the show's new serial format whereby each episode builds upon the last. It's now exploring America's unquenchable fondness for remembering the good ol' days through a brilliant satirical device called “Member Berries.”

"Member Bionic Man? Member Chewbacca, again?" say the grape-like bunches of poisonous fruit. "Member when there weren't so many Mexicans? Member when marriage was just between a man and a woman? Member feeling safe? Member no ISIS? Member Reagan?" The switch is sudden, irreverent, and effective — and very, very South Park.

Here's how Todd VanDerWerff describes Member Berries over at The Verge's sister site Vox:

"Member Berries, when ingested, cause the person who’s taken them to lose all critical faculties and long for an uncomplicated past. In and of itself, this would be an okay idea for the show to dig into — Parker and Stone are great at unpacking pop culture, after all — but the link between Star Wars and Trump (here portrayed by South Park’s increasingly irascible teacher Mr. Garrison) gives the idea even more heft."

"When we long for the past, the show argues, we can’t see what’s in front of us, and we become lost in a haze. And it doesn’t matter if the past we long for is when we were kids watching a favorite movie, or a bygone America that was "great." We’re still trapped by nostalgia in the end."

I used to think that our collective obsession with nostalgic entertainment was silly but harmless. Artless but benign. I certainly never thought it was subversive to society — only to good taste. I'm done paying to have my nostalgia bone tickled. If I'm going to look back it'll be to learn the lessons of history, not to avoid the problems of the present. At least until we can make America okay again.