It’s been a long time since we talked about South Park as a TV show. As an institution, sure. Trey Parker and Matt Stone took Comedy Central mainstream in 1997, and they’ve outlasted all the network’s ensuing zeitgeists: Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle, Stephen Colbert, Key & Peele, soon Amy Schumer, maybe Tosh someday. In 2013, the show downshifted to a 10-episode-yearly schedule: a shorter season, but also maybe just the new normal for cable. They’re contracted through 2019.
Why would they stop? Parker and Stone have time for extracurriculars — an Oscar nomination here, a videogame there, the occasional raft of Tony awards. In their public statements, they sound perfectly willing to keep the show going until Comedy Central cancels them. Comedy Central, in turn, seems perfectly willing to keep the show going until they quit. The show’s ratings aren’t what they used to be, but then again, our perspective on TV ratings isn’t what it used to be. Sure, South Park’s first season finale had 6.4 million viewers; sure, last week’s episode had just 1.2. But that first season finale was 17 years ago. Saying less people watch South Park is like saying someone invented Netflix.
Because South Park has lasted so long, because of its uniquely privileged position beyond the usual ratings race, and because it has been and always will be a relatively low-budget cartoon, starring lookalike soundalikes, we don’t think of it as a TV show because it’s not really like any other TV show. We treat it more like an animated op-ed column. And, to be fair, the timeliness of South Park was always one of its central virtues. As memorialized in the documentary Six Days to Air, the complete production schedule for a single episode is insanely rapid: Weeks shorter than the typical scripted show, months shorter than the typical animated series. “What does South Park think about this topical event?” became a thing right around the moment that the rise of social media demanded loud, frequent opinions about topical events.
But the rush to timeliness could hurt the show, too. Mid-period South Park hit something like Peak Topicality on Nov. 5, 2008, with “About Last Night.” The episode portrayed the immediate aftermath of the election of Barack Obama. It aired all of 24 hours after the actual election of Barack Obama — and it even featured actual lines from the new President’s acceptance speech!
Which is impressive the way weight-lifting is impressive: clearly difficult, no fun to watch. Topicality for its own sake doesn’t age well, and there are episodes from around that period that feel a bit like Trending Topics you wish you never cared about. Doing an episode about Barack Obama’s first night as president sounds cool; making the episode into an extended Ocean’s Eleven parody feels like an easy way out of making a real joke.
Which never made the show bad, per se. Nobody ever gives South Park enough respect for its constant willingness to throw out its own playbook. Even moreso than The Simpsons, South Park embraced the possibility of the animation format to tell every kind of story. The show could alternate between a human-scale school farce or a three-part cosmic spoof. The phases of the show’s history have shifted between central protagonists, from the original core four to Butters to Randy. Mr. Garrison has occasionally been the show’s heart. Freaking Craig gets more to do than anyone Lost introduced after season 4.
If you ever felt like checking out, the show offered plenty of opportunity. The celebratory “200”/”201” two-parter macrocosm-ed the show’s history into a massive celebrity showdown and finally revealed who Eric Cartman’s father was. The melancholy “You’re Getting Old” was even bolder, suddenly treating the characters as actual human beings struggling against the dying of the light. Then came “Ass Burgers,” the sick-joke sequel to “You’re Getting Old” which ends on one of the bleakest shots I’ve ever seen in a TV show.
Taking all three of those together, it’s like South Park did its own version of the finales to Seinfeld, Friday Night Lights, and The Prisoner. All three would have served fine as closing statements. But then the show just kept going, going, going.
South Park is six episodes into its 19th season. When I say this is the best South Park season in a decade, I don’t mean South Park is emerging from a creative dry spell, or that these are the six best episodes ever. We’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of “Trapped in the Closet,” an activist triumph that still influences how the culture talks about Scientology. “Britney’s New Look” is one of the best things anyone has ever said about how America treats pop stars. The two-part “Cartoon Wars” remains the definitive word on Family Guy. Every single thing that happens in “Fishsticks” is hilarious — even funnier now that nobody remembers Carlos Mencia.
But it’s never really made sense to view South Park as a “season” kind of show. That has changed, gradually and suddenly. After the occasional dalliance with serialized two- and three-parters, season 18 quietly built several running story arcs toward the finale. Last season also saw technology as a central topic. That may have been an accident: When I talked to Parker a couple months ago, he admitted to feeling a little bemused looking back over last season. “Every show had this running theme: We can’t keep up anymore,” he said.
Something else changed in the show’s production schedule. “We always used to bank a show,” Parker explained, noting that the staff used to conceive one non-topical episode that could be plugged in anywhere during the season. “Those episodes are notoriously the worst episodes,” he said, specifically referencing “Goth Kids 3: Dawn of the Posers,” a low-point season 17 episode. “Last season was when we first said we’re not doing that anymore,” said Parker.
Maybe that’s why, starting with the season 19 premiere, South Park has launched a sustained world-rebuilding narrative arc that doubles as a satire of the new wave of PC outrage. Political correctness isn’t a new target for South Park — you could argue it is the target — but what’s new is how the show keeps rooting its comedy in the larger changes underpinning its little mountain town.
Those changes start early in the premiere, “Stunning and Brave.” After 18 seasons, Principal Victoria has been replaced. Meet the new man in charge: PC Principal, a jacked-up fratboy activist who’s part motivational speaker and part thought-police stormtrooper. PC Principal’s first big speech is the show at its most meta, but the self-commentary has a purpose. Where “200”/”201” played with the show’s history, the Principal’s speech outright attacks it:
This place is lost in a time warp. Students who still use the word retarded. A teacher who said women without wombs should get an AIDS test. A chef person of color who the children had sing soul songs, and who the children drove to kill himself. Lemme ask you this. We’re in Colorado, right? Where are the Hispanic kids? Huh? WHERE ARE THE ETHNIC AND RACIAL MINORITIES? I Googled South Park before I came here, and I could not believe the s— you were getting away with. People claiming to be advocates of transgender rights, but really just wanting to use the bathroom. A white man who thinks he’s Chinese and built a wall to keep out Mongolians. What the f— is this? Are you f—ing kidding me? I’m telling you all, this is done. Like it or not, PC is back, and it’s bigger than ever! That’s the sound of 2015 pulling you over, people! Suck it!
There’s a simple joke at play with PC Principal: He’s the anti-bully bully, a white cisgender alpha male establishment figure who’s stated mission in life is to tear down the white cisgender alpha male establishment. And that joke could have powered one solid episode. “Stunning and Brave” is The Caitlyn Jenner Episode, but it’s not a Mel Gibson-style celebrity takedown. Longtime show conscience Kyle refuses to say that Caitlyn Jenner is a hero — which, in newly politically correct South Park makes him Public Enemy No. 1.
Kyle and the other boys convince Cartman to try dethrone PC Principal. The plan backfires violently: PC Principal brutally attacks Cartman for using un-PC language. (There’s a freaky physicality to South Park when it gets violent: The characters may be floating geometric shapes, but their splattering blood and broken bones have a crunchily organic spew.) In the hospital, Cartman has an epiphany:
PC Principal is right, Kyle. You and I are bigots. And it’s time for us to grow up… We’re two privileged white boys who have their laughs about something they never had to deal with.
This is Eric Cartman — absolute avatar of racist misogyny — lumping himself together with Kyle, person who does not agree that one transgender person is a hero. Kyle won’t hear it: “I’m not going to apologize for saying Caitlyn Jenner isn’t a hero. In fact, I think she’s most likely not a very good person!” Later in the episode, Kyle goes further: “I didn’t even say she wasn’t a hero! I just said she wasn’t a hero to me! I didn’t like Bruce Jenner as a person when he was on the Kardashians, and I don’t suddenly like him now!”
Part of the stealth-missile genius of “Stunning and Brave” is that, by the end, the show’s central dichotomy has flipped. Kyle, long the show’s speech-giving moral center, is now the the harrumphing reactionary, the spectrum-opposite of political correctness advocates like PC Principal, Randy, and Cartman. “What does being PC mean?” asks PC Principal. “I’ll tell you what it means. It means you love nothing more than beer, workin’ out, and that feeling you get when you rhetorically defend a marginalized community from systems of oppression!”
South Park has never had to believe in anything. That’s a good thing, because it doesn’t need to subscribe to any one philosophy. But clearly, the show’s creators believe in something. And there’s an argument that Parker and Stone always trended more conservative than their potty-mouths imply. The Book of Mormon makes wild fun of the Mormon Church, but it ultimately lands on the idea that there really can be a White Savior of African poverty. This is either a joke or just a happy-ending-ish way to end a lighthearted play; surely it means something that the white guys get all the best songs.
But the best thing about South Park season 19 is that the show clearly realizes that the central point of its comedy — our new politically correct culture — is also the central point of the new wave of reactionary animosity. The season’s second episode, “Where My Country Gone?”, is the least essential of this current run, but it served a purpose as a kind of protective shield. Should you ever find yourself accusing South Park of racism or sexism or any other kind of -ism, you will have to also acknowledge that South Park raped and murdered a Donald Trump caricature for laughs.
The real brilliance starts in episode 3, “The City Part of Town,” a gentrification fairy tale. The townspeople are desperate to improve South Park’s image as a backwards and old-fashioned. (Now more than ever, whenever someone on the show talks about South Park the town, they really mean South Park the show.) So they set off on a mission of hip modernization, which means transforming the poorest section of town — Kenny’s house, basically — into a new neighborhood called SodoSopa (short for South of Downtown South Park.) SodoSopa is hipster city planning run amok.
One of my favorite ever South Park images: Watching how SodoSopa builds around and above Kenny’s house, a Seussian vision of the upper-class experiencing poverty as an aesthetic while ignoring poverty as a lifestyle. By the end of the episode, the town has its Whole Foods, but it’s in trendy new Historic CtPa Town, and SodoSopa is a ruin.
Parker is 46, Stone 44. They’re not old men, but they’re not young anymore, and “You’re Getting Old” looks in hindsight less like an ending than a new beginning. Cards on the table: I was a teenager when South Park first launched. I have no idea how South Park plays to teenagers now, largely because its become very clear to me in the last couple years that I have absolutely no idea what teenagers are anymore. Like most people in my rough demographic, I had no idea that “YouTuber” was a legitimate thing until very recently; like anyone over 30, I can’t say “Snapchat” without wincing. It feels like South Park is in a roughly similar position: Season 18 was largely about the new realities of a generation raised with all the new technology that they’re too young to even consider “new.”
This is all to say that I’m aware that South Park is playing right into my skepticism about certain newfangled cultural realities, in a way that might sound a lot like this to anyone born after the millennium:
But this season has a clarity of purpose that goes deeper than griping about identity politics. That comes through most powerfully in episodes 4 and 5, “You’re Not Yelping” and “Safe Space.” In the former, egotistical Yelp reviewers demand respect from restaurants, and get violent when that respect is not granted. In “Safe Space,” Cartman posts a picture online of himself in underwear and declares himself a victim of fat-shaming when he receives negative comments. Soon enough, he’s hanging out with other victims of harassment: Steven Segal, Demi Lovato, and Vin Diesel. It’s not long before they’re all together at a lavish gala dedicated to creating an American without harassment: a #ShamelessAmerica.
I guess you could always accuse South Park of reducing important issues to their most obvious punchlines. People do get bullied. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are, at this point, privileged white boys who frequently have a laugh about something they’ve never had to deal with. In “Safe Space,” there was a throwaway line that stuck out to me: “Lena Dunham just put a picture of her a–hole on Twitter, and wants only the positive comments.”
The episode aired three weeks after Dunham left Twitter, specifically because it was no longer a “safe space.” I’d be intrigued to know how Dunham responds to a joke like that. You could certainly argue that Parker has never had to deal with the insults that Dunham has faced. In six years at Entertainment Weekly, I’ve worked with brilliant female writers who constantly received beyond-degrading insults in the comment boards. (That only happens to me when I explain why Man of Steel sucked.)
But the point this season is a subtle, complicated one. It’s not making fun of political correctness. It’s staging a full-frontal assault on the profiteers of political correctness. It’s portraying how the very important work of protecting victims can shade ever so gradually into a culture that hyperbolizes minor (or even perceived) transgressions. And it’s having a serious conversation about the unforeseen side effects of politically correct culture. Throughout “Safe Space,” the show keeps cutting back to poor, starving African orphans. Besieged by requests from a Whole Foods cashier to donate one dollar to Africa, Randy keeps declaring that “charity shaming” is wrong. Randy doesn’t like feeling ashamed. The orphans don’t like starving. Is “shame” a human rights issue? And if so, is it more or less important than starvation?
“You say fat-shaming is wrong, so in response you show off your abs? You’re the one fat-shaming, you idiot!” That’s a line from near the end of “Safe Space,” when the charity gala gets crashed by Reality. Seriously: That’s the name of the Hamburgler-looking character who attacks the various shamed celebrities, as revealed in a hilarious musical number.
Reality ends the episode with a speech that you could argue represents a giant truth bomb or an overly ardent bout of mansplaining:
You’re sad that people are mean? Well, I’m sorry, the world isn’t one big liberal arts college campus. We eat too much. We take our spoiled lived for granted. Feel a little bad about it sometimes! Now, you wanna put all your s— up on the Internet and have every single person say, ‘Hooray for You!’ F— you. You’re all pricks.
This is about as close as the show has come this season to declaring an explicit point this season. South Park used to traffick in end-of-episode Explicit Point speeches, usually from Kyle. Now, whenever Kyle even threatens to make a speech, people refuse to listen. “Safe Space” silences Reality, too: The episode ends with him on a gallows, his neck audibly snapping, his body swinging in the breeze. The people of South Park cheer.
I’m not sure where the season is going from here, not sure if it’s building to some grand finale or just aiming towards a season 20 reboot back to “normal.” The sixth episode downshifted into more modest territory, with the town in the throes of what you might call reverse gay panic. Everyone in town is incredibly excited that Tweek and Craig are gay; nobody seems to care that Tweek and Craig aren’t actually gay.
It’s a relatively light episode, but it shares a twisty idea at the core of the rest of this season. South Park is using political correctness to explore larger topics. What happens to the concept of victimization when anyone can be a victim? How can so much money flow into low-income neighborhoods, but never find its way to the people making low incomes? It’s similar, in a way, to what happened on the last season of Parks & Recreation, when liberal avatar Leslie Knope became a technoskeptic reactionary. (The first half of Parks’ final season might be called: “Where My Pawnee Gone?”)
But that show had faith in humanity’s fundamental wacky decency. On South Park season 19, Cartman the eternal bully has become the victim. He’s never been more powerful, never so stunning and brave.