Gnomes (South Park)
|South Park episode|
An anti-Harbucks commercial featured in "Gnomes" demonstrates the propagandist use of imagery and exploitation of children in opposing corporations in favor of small businesses.
|Episode no.||Season 2
|Directed by||Trey Parker|
|Written by||Pam Brady
|Original air date||December 16, 1998|
"Gnomes" is the seventeenth episode of the second season of the animated television series South Park, and the 30th episode of the series overall. "Gnomes" originally aired in the United States on December 16, 1998 on Comedy Central. This episode marks the first appearance of Tweek and his parents.
The song sung by the gnomes as they collect underwear throughout the episode.
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Mr. Garrison's job is on the line because he does not teach anything relevant, so in an effort to save his job he makes the class do oral presentations on a current event for the town committee. Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny are grouped together with Tweek, a jittery child, who suggests that the presentation should be on the "Underpants Gnomes" who are tiny gnomes that sneak into his house and steal his underpants. The boys agree to stay at Tweek's house to work on Mr. Garrison's homework assignment and to see if Underpants Gnomes exist.
Tweek's parents, who own a coffee shop, give the boys coffee to help them stay up. The boys drink too much coffee, and end up wired, bouncing off the walls of Tweek's bedroom rather than writing their report. As 3.30am, the time Tweek said the gnomes come, approaches, the boys realize they have nothing to present. Tweek's father then enters the room, offering the boys a propagandist speech against Harbucks, a national chain of coffee houses threatening his business. As he does this, Tweek's gnomes steal the underpants from his dresser, but only Tweek sees them.
The boys' presentation is a hit, much to Mr. Garrison's surprise. The town committee is so impressed that they lobby Mayor McDaniels to pass a law against Harbucks. The mayor agrees to a so-called prop 10, allowing the townspeople to vote on whether the Harbucks may remain in South Park. Mr. Tweek's plan worked, but Mrs. Tweek is unhappy, claiming that the boys are being exploited.
The mayor tells the boys to do another presentation just before the vote. Mr. Garrison, knowing that the boys did not write the first presentation, piles the pressure on, telling them that it must be good. The boys, however, know nothing on the subject. As they are at their wits' end, they finally see Tweek's gnomes and ply them for information. The gnomes, claiming to be business experts, explain their business plan:
- Collect Underpants
Kenny is crushed by a falling trolley cart used by the gnomes during the visit; the gnomes are aghast at the accident, but the boys are too fixated on their business research to express their customary outrage at Kenny's latest death.
When the boys come up to give their presentation for the vote, they do a report that is completely different from their previous piece. They now say, having spoken to the gnomes, that corporations are good, and are only big because of their great contributions to the world, such as Harbucks with their great coffee. While speaking, they admit that they did not write the previous paper, which causes Mr. Garrison to be carried away as he lashes out at the boys. Mrs. Tweek applauds their honesty and admits to the same facts herself. Then she convinces the whole town to try Harbucks Coffee, which is famous because it tastes so good. When everybody does try it, they all agree (especially because the Tweek brand is awful), including Mr. Tweek, who accepts an offer to run the Harbucks shop.
The episode satirizes the common complaint against large corporations lacking scruples and driving seemingly wholesome smaller independent companies out of business. Paul Cantor, a literary critic and economic theorist, who has taught college courses revolving around the "Gnomes" episode, has described it as "the most fully developed defense of capitalism" ever produced by the show. Cantor said the episode challenges the stereotype that small businesses are public servants who truly care about their customers by portraying local business owner Mr. Tweek as greedier and having fewer scruples than that of the corporation he is challenging; Tweek knowingly takes advantage of American distrust for big businesses and nostalgia for simpler times in his fight to maintain his bottom line. At the end of the episode, Kyle and Stan conclude big corporations are good due to the services they provide people, and uphold the notion that the businesses providing the best product deserve to succeed in the marketplace and grow to become larger. However, in portraying the Harbucks business plan as seducing the youth of the town with high-caffeine and high-sugar "kid-dycinno" drinks, Harbucks is also portrayed as lacking scruples in its corporate expansionist agenda.
The gnome characters and their underpants collection represent the ordinary business activity of capitalism that takes place on a regular basis in front of everyone, but is seldom noticed by society. Cantor has said the fact that the gnomes themselves do not understand their own business plan or why they steal the underwear could represent the idea that businessmen themselves often lack the economic knowledge needed to explain their activity and profits to the public. Pop culture scholars Carl Rhodes and Robert Westwood said the gnomes, by forgoing Mr. Tweek's notions of high-mindedness and openly acknowledging their quest of profits, engage in a "pure, 'libertarian' capitalism - one in which profit is the only animus and in which if that is the end, any means are justified."
Following the episode's release, the underpants gnomes and particularly the business plan lacking a second stage between "Collect underpants" and "Profit", became widely used by many journalists and business critics as a metaphor for failed, internet bubble-era business plans and ill-planned political goals. Cantor said "no episode of South Park I have taught has raised as much raw passion, indignation, and hostility among students as 'Gnomes' has. I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with the defensiveness of elitists confronted with their own elitism."
- The Harbucks company is a reference to Starbucks, one of the largest coffee house chain companies in the world.
- Gnomes are often associated with the world of finance. Several commentators suggested the gnomes in South Park could be a reference to the phrase Gnomes of Zürich, a disparaging term for Swiss bankers.
- Cantor, Paul A. (December 2006). "The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand: South Park and Libertarian Philosophy". South Park and Philosophy: You Know, I Learned Something Today. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. p. 107. ISBN 1-4051-6160-4.
- Cantor, p. 103
- Rhodes, Carl; Westwood, Robert (2008). Critical Representations of Work and Organization in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge. pp. 129–132. ISBN 0-415-35989-9.
- Cantor, p. 104
- Cantor, p. 109
- Maranjian, Selena (2001-11-08). ""South Park's" Investing Lesson". Motley Fool. Retrieved 2009-03-31.
- Williams, Patrick (2003-05-22). "Down in the Dump". Dallas Observer. Retrieved 2009-03-31.
- Comaford, Christine (2007-02-20). "Make Your Financing Pitch Sizzle". BusinessWeek. Retrieved 2009-03-31.
- Rosenberg, Paul (2007-03-04). "Underpants Gnome Politics". Open Left. Retrieved 2010-09-13.
- Stephens, Bret (2009-05-26). "Obama and the 'South Park' Gnomes". The Wall Street Journal. p. A17. Retrieved 2009-05-26.
- Krugman, Paul (2010-01-21). "The Underpants Gnomes Theory Of Reform". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-22.
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- "Gnomes" Full episode at South Park Studios
- "Gnomes" Episode Guide at South Park Studios
- "Gnomes" at the Internet Movie Database
- "Gnomes" at TV.com