For a huge chunk of Americans, the venerable Comedy Central show South Park is more than simply a half hour of inspired, if crass, laughs: it is also a weathervane for America’s political center. Sometimes, the show does everything in its power to avoid filling that role, as in the case of trippy episodes like its Imaginationland trilogy, but just as often, it leans in, deliberately tackling politically charged subjects with varying degrees of subtlety. This doesn’t always work, and sometimes the messages come off as hamfisted or overly ambiguous.
But sometimes, they come off brilliantly, as in the case of a recent episode of South Park entitled “Hummels and Heroin,” which stands as South Park’s take on – among other things – the opioid crisis. Like most episodes of South Park, that take is highly irreverent, as the only “victims” of opioids the show portrays are people dressed in absurd mascot costumes from popular children’s entertainment, such as Peppa Pig, Spiderman, or (most importantly for the show’s purposes) Chuck E. Cheese. It is the collapse of this last mascot, who chokes on his own vomit from a painkiller overdose in the middle of a child’s birthday party in the episode’s opening moments, that prompts one of the more cutting elements of the episode’s plot.
You see, the traumatized child who witnesses this collapse – a boy named Marcus Preston – becomes consumed with finding the people responsible for overdosing his beloved Chuck E. Cheese, eventually turning into a clever pint-sized pastiche of the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Javert. At first, he blames one of the show’s protagonists (semi-correctly), only to be later told that the whole thing goes deeper and he should go after the “real d*****bags who profit from all this” by selling opioids to kids’ mascots – something that the episode portrays as happening thanks to a nursing home centered drug smuggling ring that passes the drugs along through crocheted pillows (don’t ask). Point is, the payoff to this lead comes in the episode’s closing moments, when Preston does, in fact, discover the people responsible. Specifically, he bursts into a “U.S. Pharmaceutical Doctors’ Seminar” with the dramatic declaration: “Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Marcus Preston. I have some questions.”
So do we all, young Marcus, so do we all.
What is stunning about this episode is not that it exists: as already mentioned, South Park has a tendency toward the political. What is stunning is how this foul-mouthed cartoon manages to finger the culprits for the opioid crisis with more clarity than the vast majority of Washington, DC politicians of both parties seem willing to do.
Let’s be quite clear: The opioid epidemic is the fault first of pharmaceutical companies, and second of doctors who acquiesced to the incentives offered by those companies. But unlike the absurdist picture painted by South Park of drugs smuggled out and sold to victims through crocheted pillows, the truth is far uglier – namely, that companies systematically went out of their way to pressure health professionals to prescribe their painkilling products, even for minor afflictions that didn’t remotely justify the risks of addiction. In short, they acted like drug dealers, and not the entertaining nursing home resident type drug dealers portrayed on the show – more like a multi-billion dollar, legal version of something from The Wire.
In response, Washington has done… basically nothing. Even President Trump, who once said the industry was “getting away with murder,” and even recently ribbed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) about the fact that Pharma “contribute[s] massive amounts of money to political people,” very nearly hired someone to be his drug czar who aided in the spread of the opioid crisis through legislation: Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA). Fortunately, Marino has since been forced to withdraw, but there are rumblings that Trump might pick a former pharma executive to head his Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) just after he ejected another Pharma apologist from the job.
And this is a President who attacked the pharmaceutical industry! The people who are openly friendly with Big Pharma are even worse.
Fortunately, at the state level, the process of holding the industry accountable for the opioid epidemic continues apace. But as the President himself acknowledges, this is a national crisis. When will Congress and the executive branch have the guts to imitate South Park and crack down on the unethical practices that led to the opioid crisis, not to mention the draconian price increases that pharma companies employ – prices increases that may well soon send addicts into the arms of actual drug dealers bearing smuggled drugs, in crocheted pillows or not.
One doubts that most members of Congress, let alone the President, watch South Park. But maybe they should. Maybe then, they might demand answers like little Marcus Preston. Or at least, they might demand them if they aren’t already the “d*****bags who profit from all this.”