“The Pandemic Special” actually succeeds more when it pivots to the periphery of the coronavirus storyline to tackle other timely issues like police reform and the psychological toll social distancing is taking on children. Those two ideas dovetail nicely in a bleakly hilarious subplot about South Park’s defunded police department being contracted out as teachers. Here the special shows a much sharper set of fangs. South Park has rarely been more timely or relevant in the last few years than when it tackles gun violence, and this episode is no exception. This oddball premise winds up serving as a perfect examination of how poorly trained, over-armed police officers only make bad situations worse. It’s that perfect double-edged sword of hilarious satire that hits all too close to home.
It should also be said that “The Pandemic Special” makes excellent use of President Garrison. Garrison has pretty much receded into the background of the series lately, which is just as well. But this episode proves that he can still click when used properly and sparingly. Garrison only pops up for a brief interlude in the middle and a surprise return at the very end, and both scenes add an extra touch of darkness to an already pretty bleak installment of the series. Plus, the Mr. Slave callback is a standout in an episode full of references to older seasons.
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Despite having more than double the runtime of a normal episode, “The Pandemic Special” winds up making the same mistake as too many recent episodes – it’s less than the sum of its parts. The plot is messy and never quite builds to a satisfying finale. President Garrison’s abrupt return helps smooth over some of the rough edges and end things on an appropriately dark note. But that doesn’t change the fact that “The Pandemic Special” is a haphazard mashup of 2020 topics and really needed some fine-tuning and streamlining. If anything, it’s a shame we aren’t getting a more traditional season anytime soon. Spread out over the course of several episodes, these individual pieces might have had more room to breathe and grow.