Review: How 'South Park' reinvented itself with its serialized 19th season
Some thoughts on last night's "South Park" finale, and the 19th(!) season as a whole, coming up just as soon as I fill out my application to live at The Residences at The Lofts at SoDoSoPa...
It's been a long time since I was a regular watcher of "South Park," since, as I've written before, the show's default philosophy that the worst sin a human can commit is to care too much about anything(*) — exemplified in episodes like "Douche and Turd," a 2004 election episode that conveyed Trey Parker and Matt Stone's shared contempt for both political parties, or "ManBearPig," mocking "An Inconvenient Truth" and Al Gore's campaign against global warming — grew exhausting, and in time overpowered the effectiveness of the smaller bits of satire. But I'd heard so much about the new serialized approach to this season that I decided to dip back in and see what Parker and Stone were up to these days.
(*) Though oddly, one of the best episodes of the show's second decade, "You're Getting Old," treated Stan's inability to care about anything as a horrible thing.
It was a fascinating season, at times frustrating in the same way that drove me from the series in the first place, at others so funny that it made me regret having been gone for so long. And while the intensely serialized nature of the season lent greater weight to much of the humor and satire, it also created problems that wouldn't have been there in a traditionally structured season.
Mocking the rise of PC culture on campuses and in public discourse seems like pretty low-hanging fruit for these guys (and, again, was largely an indictment of the idea of feeling passionate about anything), even if there were moments (like the return of the City Wok owner) where Parker and Stone were acknowledging that times had changed and some of the things they found funny when the series debuted weren't as acceptable now. (A sign of maturity, or a sign of frustration from a show that revels in bad taste? Possibly both.) There was some of the series' usual Plague On Both Their Houses approach to satire, though Mr. Garrison's run for president ultimately took a backseat to the terrible reign of PC Principal, perhaps because the Trump campaign has become impervious to satire (or shame, or decency, or facts, or anything else) in time. Over the course of these 10 episodes, "South Park" tried to create a Grand Unified Field Theory of America in 2015 — or, at least, a Grand Unified Field Theory of things Parker and Stone are annoyed with in America in 2015 — and weaving the PC story into the gentrification of South Park into Mr. Garrison's campaign into the self-importance of Yelpers (easily the season's best episode) into the terrible rise of the ads, etc., with stories from one episode bleeding into the next and the next and the next, seemed to elevate each individual issue into something grander and more ridiculous.
But at times, the season reminded me of AJ Soprano's political awakening near the end of that series, and how he tended to pull 50 different ideas out of the air at once to try to impress people with his convictions, even as they insisted he was all over the place and not making the big point he felt he was. Individually, the mockery of how ads (and/or content tied to ads and other forms of marketing) have replaced genuine news was wonderful, but it didn't fit all that seamlessly in with everything that had been going on with PC Principal, Caitlyn Jenner, Whole Foods, et al. For that matter, everyone in South Park suddenly having handguns, and trotting them out to resolve the most mild of arguments, was hysterical (as was the melding of a gun show with the climax of a dog show), but seemed to come out of nowhere from this larger arc, as if the creators wanted to touch on the gun thing due to the renewed post-San Bernardino debate, and didn't want to wait until next season, when it would seem less timely.
It's even harder to believe that "South Park" is ending its second decade than that "The Simpsons" is ending its third. "South Park" took greater pleasure in being a disreputable interloper, where "The Simpsons" moved pretty quickly past its early status as the latest thing that was going to end Western civilization as we knew it. For the rude party crasher to still be going all these years later is remarkable — though perhaps, as James Poniewozik noted in his take on the season, the rise of outrage culture on both sides of the political spectrum makes an outrageous comedy more essential than ever — as is the creators' willingness to experiment so radically this late in the game, when they could easily just sit back, count the money, and let some manatees write the show. On the whole I'm glad I came back, even if it won't necessarily keep me around for season 20.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org