South Park is in another blackout week. I’m not sure why, after years and years of blackout free seasons, the show is suddenly taking multiple weeks off per season. But that’s alright. It gives me an opportunity to talk about this season a little more openly and to make some observations about the thrust of this new chapter in the life of South Park. And if Parker and Stone need a week off here and there to produce the kind of work they’re producing, I’m totally fine with that.
This season, as multiple publications have pointed out, has been exceptionally ambitious in it’s scope. For the first time since the show’s inception, the entire season is being focused around a handful of storylines that carry from episode to episode. South Park has experimented with long-form narrative in the past (Randy’s “Lorde” arc from last season, the Mysterion story line, Cartoon Wars, the 200th episode special, etc.), but the show has never taken a single issue and built an entire season around it. Now they are doing just that. The target? Political correctness. It’s something that the show has obliquely acknowledged since the beginning. And it’s ability to take down targets with a maniacal cackle has always been one of the show’s greatest strengths. But with the sudden and ubiquitous rise of PC culture, and the just as fierce (and much scarier) rise of anti-political correctness, it seems perfectly reasonable for an institution like South Park to take on such a massive culture shift.
Jon Stewart is sick of humans (he and his wife are starting an animal sanctuary). Stephen Colbert is hawking celebrities and politicians un-ironically. Key & Peele is off the air. SNL sucks. And Jon Oliver is locked into exploring byzantine and occasionally alienating subjects. Our satirical institutions are not what they used to be. South Park stands alone among them as an entertaining voice of rationality in a sea of people shouting at each other. So the show’s decision to focus on political correctness, which is arguably the anti-satire, is an important one. As one of the last places that can get away with poking fun at the self-righteous, it’s very important that it asserts itself as such.
Granted, the show will occasionally drift into positions that are questionable. The Safe Space episode walked a very fine line when discussing fat-shaming that was about half a step away from being not okay. The murder/rape of Donald Trump in Where My Country Gone? was hilarious and shocking, but left us with the uneasy position of wondering if Parker and Stone were advocating for Trump to be, well, murder-raped (I’m sure they were not, by the way). But this is why satire is so important. If the show stayed safely within the boundaries of what was “acceptable,” they would not be doing their jobs. The whole purpose of satire is to push back against the status quo and question limits of society. South Park does this all the time.
What makes this season different (and ultimately, exciting) is that the show has started to question their own place in the culture. The first episode of the season, Stunning and Brave, started as a skewering of how everyone was tripping over each other to praise Caitlyn Jenner, but quickly morphed into an indictment of PC culture that, shockingly, ended with Kyle and Stand basically acknowledging that political correctness was here to stay and that maybe they needed to examine their own behavior within that context. It was notable for being the first time that Kyle gave one of his summation speeches that did not reflect what he actually believed. It was the first time the characters looked at the absurdity and chaos surrounding them and came to the conclusion that they couldn’t win. The episode served as a thesis for the rest of the season: the forces of political correctness and anti-political correctness cannot be fought with reason. They can only be fought with satire.
Which has allowed us to see the show take positions on such varying subjects as gentrification, Donald Trump, online harassment, Yaoi, child labor, Whole Foods, charity, and many others. But all of it falls under the new cultural umbrella of political correctness. Everything can be brought back to PC culture. And with the new character of PC Principal at the center of it all, there is a clear antagonist espousing the ideas that, for Parker and Stone, are often absurd, sometimes fair, but always outrageous. With a clear foil for the characters to bounce off of, the show has a character that can act as a mouthpiece for the antithetical view of the show itself. My guess is that the season will end with PC Principal being ousted somehow, probably through a shocking and violent death.
All of this is to say that despite being on the air for 18 years, the show is still pushing itself to discover and re-discover it’s place in the zeitgeist. And with the position of satire being more precarious than it has been in the past, it’s thrilling to see one of our most venerable satiric institutions asserting itself. Here’s hoping they continue to do just that.
If you’d like to read my reviews for past episodes, check them out below!
Stunning and Brave
Where My Country Gone?
You’re Not Yelping
Tweek X Craig
Tags: caitlyn jenner, Comedy Central, Donald Trump, season 19, south park