Sometimes it's hard to remember that our real lives are distinct and separate from our online lives. Take it from some guy who enjoys his "likes" and hits from writing reviews more than he'd sometimes care to admit, it's all too easy to become consumed in our online presence to the point that we forget about our lives away from screens, away from the things that give us meaning and insight and the inspiration to post anything to social media.
Which is why I think I'm okay with the tack "Skank Hunt" takes. (Now that's not sentence I ever expected to write.) Look, online bullying driving people to suicide is a legitimate issue, and even if it's not widespread, making it the source of fun admittedly makes me a little uneasy. And yet, I think it's in service of that point, that kids and adults alike treat their online personas as their entire being, and that we as a culture and a society overinflate the importance of the digital part of our lives. The grave, faux-solemnity with which South Park treats the idea of someone quitting Twitter is not, in my estimation, an attempt to make fun of people driven to suicide (though it's certainly meant to be envelope pushing as the show always is), but rather an attempt to make fun of how big a deal we make over something as slight as social media in the first place, to where quitting Twitter or Facebook or god help us, Trakt, can be treated as such a cataclysmic event.
This is as good a time to mention that one of the ways South Park achieves this is in "Skank Hunt" is with some unexpectedly good design work, music, and cinematography. Even in it's construction paper cut out days, the show had a certain visual experimentalist quality to it. But in "Skank Hunt," the show goes a step further to drive home the faux-magnitude of what's taking place, whether it's the pan up to the sky as a little girl drops her phone into the river, or the leering shadow of Gerald as he wages war against a Scandavian olympic athlete, or the slow shots of what looks like a massacre as the South Park Elementary girls deliver break up letter after break up letter to the boys. This episode did a great job of using the "camera" of this still semi-crudely animated show to help convey mood and heighten the feeling of these scenes.
Throw in a ridiculous sequence sent to a Boston tune that subs Gerald's typing for tickling the ivories, a similarly goofy sequence of Gerald celebrating his notoriety to the silly strains of "Steal My Sunshine," and the swelling music that back the break up sequence, and you have a show that's using more than just its superb writing and bent premises to make its impact.
But the story and themes are still the core of Skank Hunt. The seriousness with which everyone treats a classmate quitting Twitter leads to the interesting point about the outsized importance we place on social media, but also does a nice job of driving the story, from leading the boys to kill Cartman...'s online presence, in a series of scenes the show mostly plays straight to hilarious effect. The story between Mr. Mackey and Scott Malkinson (who we haven't seen in forever) is South Park's humor at its darkest. Well, maybe not its darkest (see: Scott Tenerman), but still, only a show like this one could wring the humor in a beleaguered guidance counselor growing tired of comforting his "suicidal" student and wishing that he would (more or less) just off himself already. It's hard to call it well-observed exactly, but there's the germ of humanity in the scene to someone becoming strained even with one of the most noble duties there is, in classic exaggerated South Park fashion.
And then there's Gerald himself, who in a Heisenberg-esque twist, is enjoying his double life as a troll too much to avoid dropping hints to his wife and son. There's commentary in his role in the episode as well, with once again, everyone in South Park, from the children to adults, treating something as ridiculous as an anonymous person on the internet spewing profanity and photoshopping lewd images with such seriousness. That seriousness seems particularly interesting in contrast to how Gerald is just doing it to "stir the pot," because he thinks it's funny. There's a disparity between how the rest of the world responds to this, and Gerald's less than grandiose reasons for it. It's clear that he's just doing this for the fun of it, and also for the notoreity of it, and that by taking trolling so seriously, the people of South Park are actually just enabling and encouraging him.
There's more to unpack here, from the idea of collective guilt and collective punishment, to the continued presence of the member berries, to the promise of more storylines in the future stemming from Cartman's wrongful "death," and Gerald's attempt to troll the untrollable. But on the whole, "Skank Hunt" is an episode about how easy it is to treat our online lives with the utmost importance, and treat anything that impugnes them like a horrid, deplorable attack on our very being, when neither our silly online posts, nor the dumb screeds that they may engender in response, deserve that level of attention, importance, or concern.