South Park has a long history of outrageous comedy and topical satire and the current season is no exception. Already this year the dynamic duo of Trey and Matt have tackled Ebola, gluten, the Washington Redskins, and trans issues. Now they have turned their thorny sense of humor on Uber, the popular ride-sharing app that has created controversy in the business world. This episode pits recurring characters Nathan and Mimsy against beloved handicapped boy Timmy who has started a rideshare company in order to fundraise for summer camp. Under the pretext of trying to avoid summer camp, South Park tackles some of the most recent controversies surrounding Uber.
The basic plot of the “Handicar” episode is an homage to classic cartoons that used to entertain kids on Saturday mornings. Nathan and Mimsy are a modern interpretation of Rocky and Mugsy, the gangster antagonists of some of the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Much like his ancestor, Nathan has plenty of cause to say, “Shut up, Mimsy!” as his hapless (and in this case handicapped) sidekick makes a mistake or says something foolish. The episode has many of the same conventions of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, including classic cartoon animations and sounds. The last part of the episode includes a resurrection of the “Wacky Races,” a cartoon from the 1960s. The adults of South Park go crazy buying milk and breakfast cereal in order to enjoy the new version of the cartoon they once loved as children. From a stylistic standpoint, “Handicar” is a tribute to the foundational cartoons of yesteryear and shows the roots that the South Park creators draw from in their own work.
But this is no simple Saturday morning cartoon to entertain the kids with. “Handicar” has some pointed critiques of the modern world and in this case, Uber in particular. In this story, Uber is represented by the beloved wheelchair-bound boy, Timmy, who is using his service to generate money for a handicapped summer camp. As the protagonist of the story, he is a sympathetic character, signalling the writers’ allegiance. Uber and Timmy are the heroes while Nathan and Mimsy, along with a cast of disgruntled businessmen, are the bad guys. It is that plotline that allows South Park to tackle the philosophical debate behind the existence of Uber.
Nathan and Mimsy’s aim is to destroy Timmy’s business in order to avoid going to summer camp, but the businessmen’s goals are far more monetary in nature. Taxi drivers, car salesmen, and visionary inventor Elon Musk all face a loss in revenue because of the popularity of Handicar. They unite in order to destroy him, along with some helpful tips and prompting from Nathan. Most of these tips take the form of a “If you’re a sheepherder and a snake is killing your sheep, what do you do?” analogy. The solutions to that question ape some of the efforts to end Uber’s ascension.
Efforts to end Handicar include trying to discredit Uber drivers and proving that the service is simply inferior to established business models, like taxis. In the end, all of those efforts fail. The writers seem to have concluded that Uber will triumph and for now, they seem to be correct. Uber has expanded to many cities worldwide despite pricing troubles, lawsuits, and claims of illegality. Just like Timmy, Uber refuses to give up on itself.
Overall, the episode is very good, but it does have its less than stellar moments. In one effort to destroy Timmy, Nathan becomes a handicar driver and looks for a female client in order to get sued for sexual harrassment. In his opinion, sometimes the best way to destroy the snake in the sheep is to have someone sue the snake for sexual misconduct. When he finds a female customer and asks if she wants to see his dick, however, it turns out to be a male in women’s clothes who ends up raping Nathan. This is a reference to the first episode featuring the characters of Nathan and Mimsy, in which Nathan gets raped by a shark. The problem with this joke is how it minimizes the seriousness of rape by making it a punchline and the use of an apparently non-traditionally gendered person as a sexual predator. In order to get a launch, the show seems to make a false equivalent between a member of the LGBT community and a paedophile in search of laughs. Ultimately it ends up feeling tasteless and offensive, one of the only missteps of the episode.
Throughout all this, it is the supposedly stupid Mimsy who stays on topic and offers the best analysis of the situation. In one quote, he observes that “maybe handicars are a kind of economic natural selection” in which the best service wins. For this he earns a slap and a “Shut up, Mimsy!” But the critique rings true. Instead of working to improve their service and compete in the way that most capitalist theorists say the system should work, they simply try to destroy the competition through other means. In that respect, South Park‘s “Handicar” episode tackles not only Uber, but the mechanisms in the market that have allowed the controversy to be created. This episode, then, is a searing indictment not only of the stupidity of the specific situation, but the system as a whole.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury