In An Outraged World, Outrageousness is Futile
Seasons of South Park, all 22 of them, can be looked back upon as time capsules of our culture. Remember metrosexuals, Bennifer, and the invasion of Iraq? That was 2003, or South Park Season 7. Tiger Woods’ sex addiction, the mass adoption of Facebook, and Jersey Shore? You’re thinking of 2010, and that was all on South Park Season 14.
For several seasons now, the running joke of South Park is how long it can keep mining whatever current controversy is happening in its timely, over-the-top way before creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone call it quits and move on.
But for all its hit-or-miss humor over the years, South Park is still as good as it’s ever been. Parker and Stone still steer the ship, having apparently never considered the option of handing the reins to someone else. For better or worse, they smear their fingerprints all over every episode. Luckily for fans, Parker and Stone rarely phone it in. Twenty-two seasons in, the show’s mix of crudity, heart-on-sleeve sincerity, and impressive animation turnaround times still works when it tackles the right topic.
And in Season 22, South Park wisely chose to sidestep the subject of Donald Trump almost entirely. His animated stand-in, President Mr. Garrison, is shown in handcuffs briefly in the last episode. Instead, these last 10 episodes set their sights on school shootings,vaping and legalized pot, Brett Kavanaugh, electric scooters, and the cost of Amazon taking over American towns.
If you didn’t see any of it, you can probably play mental Mad Libs to fill in the blanks of how those all played out. In classic South Park style, school shootings began as a cause for fear and alarm in “Dead Kids,” but by episode’s end, they happened so frequently that life and classes went on with gunshots and sirens as background noise. Stan’s dad Randy Marsh moved the family to the country to run a legalized pot business in “Tegridy Farms.” Because working an American farm gives you ‘tegrity, get it? And Amazon was the subject of a two-part finale that brought us a telepathically speaking Jeff Bezos with a giant, veiny ass for a head. He turned the townspeople against each other over Amazon Prime membership tiers and dangerous factory conditions. You know, South Park stuff.
But every now and then, there’d be a moment you weren’t expecting, like a genuinely affecting musical montage about life at an Amazon fulfillment factory. Or Sharon Marsh’s incredulity over how an entire town could gaslight itself into being OK with children being shot in schools every day. Or the dismissal of two long-running characters, Satan and Mr. Hankey, dead and exiled from town, respectively. South Park has been at this for so long that no one even bats an eye anymore when it breaks a supposed TV taboo, such as allowing Santa Claus to use the unbleeped word, “Cunt.”
That South Park remains one of the few cultural institutions completely immune to outrage culture seems to be on the minds of Parker and Stone as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if that leads them to pull up stakes soon. The season kicked off with a “#CancelSouthPark” social media campaign The season contains moments where the show self-reflects on its legacy, with its elementary school protagonists questioning how much longer they can keep fighting these ridiculous battles.
When South Park goes out of its way to be offensive, no one is offended. It tackled gun culture, the definition of an emotional, hot-button issue, and earned its lowest premiere ratings to date. When it took on Amazon for two episodes, Jeff Bezos was probably flattered. You can watch them for $2.99 each on Amazon Prime.
Comedy Central has already renewed South Park for another ten-episode season. Parker and Stone, who managed to create an award-winning Broadway musical while keeping this show going, have built a TV show that will run as long as they want it to.
But there’s a sadness in tone some of these latter-day episodes, particularly the ones in which the boys realize all their efforts really don’t matter much. When Al Gore returns to gloat about the predictions he made that nobody listened to, Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman learn that their grandparents sold their futures for instant gratification. Then they do it, too. Resetting to the status quo, in this season, means reverting to the worst possible current state. It’s as much a bummer as realizing you can do whatever you want on television with no backlash at all. For guys who like to fuck with people’s expectations and political assumptions, it must be maddening.
Naughty cartoons haven’t been shocking in a long while, but the path South Park cleared led to more emotionally-resonant adult animation, including Big Mouth and BoJack Horseman. If Parker and Stone are signaling that it’ll soon be time to move on, more power to them.