Unlike most shows about children, the one thing South Park rarely addresses is the one thing that childhood is all about: growing up. It’s been touched on before (“4th Grade” comes to mind), but mostly South Park’s kids, like the show itself, exist in the sort of stasis required of cartoons, ostensibly learning but never really evolving. As Sharon says at the surprisingly poignant end of tonight’s episode, every week we see some slight variation on the same sort of story, and every week it gets a little more ridiculous, only to have the whole thing reset when the next week rolls around. That’s even truer of South Park than most other cartoons, considering this is the show that spent its early years killing the same character in every episode yet always brought him back, fresh as a daisy, ready to be slaughtered all over again.
And as the revelations of last season’s “Mysterion” trilogy showed us, it seems as though South Park is getting a bit reflective about that sort of thing in its old age, turning inward and examining its formula in a way that my colleague Todd VanDerWerff would probably identify as “meta.” Much as that explanation of Kenny’s many rebirths dissected one of the show’s oldest conventions, tonight tackled a relatively newer, but no less formulaic pattern, with Sharon finally calling out Randy on his insatiable need to fill his life with short-lived fads that lead to him making the same stupid mistakes again and again with only minor variations. It’s a criticism you could level at a lot of shows, of course—entire runs of sitcoms have been built on that—but that dearth of new ways to spin the same old thing obviously hits pretty close to home for Trey Parker and Matt Stone, given that they started off the season openly dreading having to come up with all-new stories to tell.
Even without that context, though, there was a definite note of weariness and finality in “You’re Getting Older,” so much so that there are already scores of people questioning on IMDB boards and Twitter whether it was, in fact, a surprise series finale. (For what it’s worth, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are still under contract through 2013—so no, probably not.) But knowing that Parker and Stone have been experiencing a bit of an existential crisis or even just restlessness definitely made tonight seem unusually thematically heavy. Sad, too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of South Park end on such a downbeat note, with its montage set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” that was both a parody of a self-serious drama’s season finale and an actual, self-serious, dramatic season finale. (More on that later.)
In keeping with the episode's themes about the way getting older makes you regard the things you used to like with a far more critical eye, South Park is certainly the right age for a similar growth spurt. As tonight’s britches-hoarding hillbillies pointed out, humanity is currently in the midst of the ‘tween era of 2009 to 2012—and that goes for the show as well, which seemed to hit a difficult patch right around ’09. And by 2012, South Park will have reached the end of its 15th year—not quite a man, but definitely not a kid, and in that tricky, bitchy teen era when suddenly everything just seems kind of pointless and shitty.
Stan only turns 10 here, but already he finds himself not only hating all of the music, movies, and even food he used to love, but hating absolutely everything and everyone. As he soon finds out from his doctor, some people never really grow out of that phase. They “get their wires crossed” and come down with a condition known as “cynicism” that causes them to broadcast their distaste for everything from processed foods to stupid movies to rampant consumerism at every available opportunity. Sometimes that cynicism becomes permanent, and calcifies until they’re offering knee-jerk opinions to anyone within earshot about, say, why L.A. Noire looks shitty, even though they’ve never played it. And sometimes, if they hone that cynicism into a mode of creative expression, they can get hired by a pop culture website to channel those knee-jerk opinions into snarky blog entries.
But most people (even those pop culture writers) avoid getting totally lost in the valley of the shadow of shitty by achieving a sense of balance—accepting that there’s plenty of crap out there but finding other things to enjoy, and most importantly, not letting the proliferation of shit convince them that the world itself has inherently changed for the worse, as Stan does here. After all, as he soon finds out, it’s a lonely and boring life to live in constant disappointment and anger. And while that’s a universal theme, it's also a very timely one: The truth is that the Internet has turned nearly everyone into a cynic, with the blank canvases of every blog, Facebook and Twitter status update, and comment board begging for your opinion, and “this looks shitty” being both the easiest and least debatable opinion to convey. (It’s a modern human condition my other colleague Nathan Rabin addressed quite astutely in his opening “My Year Of Flops” entry as “Everything Sucksism.”) If South Park is really taking a hard look at itself here, it’s also offering a critique of the “fan” whose response to every new episode is unfailingly that the show totally sucks now, and that it should hurry up and end so they can stop watching it every week.
As for Randy, he has an equally unbalanced response toward not enjoying things the way he used to: He rebels with a contrarian stance, convincing himself that he actually loves something that others hate—namely “Tween Wave,” the newest meaningless subgenre of music that those damn kids are always listening to, but which to older ears sounds like pure shit. Like actual shit, that is—in Stan’s words, “It sounds like somebody is shitting in my ears”—albeit shit layered over some generic dubstep beats. Refusing to admit that he just doesn’t “get it,” Randy goes so far as to form his own Tween Wave act, Steamy Ray Vaughan, and eventually duet with the equally defiant Steamy Nicks on a series of britches-shitting ballads.
Just from the short sneak preview that was released before the episode aired, some were already drawing parallels between the scenario of Randy forcing himself to like music seemingly based on cheap shock value and the critics who have fallen all over themselves to praise a group like Odd Future, just to prove that they also “get it.” And while I’ll admit that the swipe about Randy’s failed rock-star dreams definitely seemed like an overt nod to music journalists (not to mention, it hit pretty close to home), I’m also not so vain that I think this was all about the likes of us. Because as I said, this episode was working with some fairly universal themes: As much as all people are given to everything sucksism, they’re also prone to bandwagoneering out of a fear of being left behind.
And as summarized in Sharon and Randy’s episode-ending argument, blindly following or blindly refusing, it's all stagnation: The second we stop growing we become unhappy, and that’s when we cease living honestly and start desperately chasing new identities like Randy, or like Stan, we completely shut down and decide that everything is shitty. It’s that realization that they’ve stopped growing as people that causes Sharon and Randy to split up (for a second time) and brings "You're Getting Old" to its unexpectedly emotional end, with the Marshes selling their house and leaving their old lives behind. And while I’m not totally convinced that the fall season premiere won’t once again hit the reset button on all this, Sharon and Randy's confrontation and ultimate tough decision posed some rather pointed questions about the show’s own advancing age, namely: Can South Park itself break its own patterns? Can it become a show where the Marshes really are divorced, Stan is ostracized, and—as their fleetingly exchanged glances suggest—Kyle and Cartman become actual friends? Can it be the kind of show where genuinely serious moments coexist with people literally spewing diarrhea out of their mouths? Can it be allowed to grow?
As much as I loved this episode for all the ways it toyed with these bigger questions while still splattering poop everywhere, and showed that such an evolution is possible, I'm leaning toward the answer being no, if only because it would be a rather abrupt shift to make in its waning hours. And if it can’t grow—if it’s forced to remain in the stasis that we’ve come to rely on—well, maybe we can forgive Parker and Stone for also wanting to walk away before everything starts to look shitty to them.
- In my excitement to (over)analyze its import, I obviously forgot to talk about just how fucking funny this thing was. The brilliance of “You’re Getting Older,” to me, was that its Very Special Episode-ness came as a total left-turn surprise, and that a half-hour with just as many farts as actual lines of dialogue could cause so much considered reflection.
- Funniest part: The sequence of sort-of-fake trailers mocking Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Adam Sandler’s actual upcoming movie Jack And Jill, and another where “the President is a duck or a dog or whatever.” Of course, much like when it implicitly compared Zookeeper to “a reheated turd in the microwave,” this scene sort of had it both ways—criticizing the cynicism that causes people to automatically complain about stuff, while also identifying the things that create that cynicism in the first place. I mean, I may be a cynical asshole, but that doesn’t mean Zookeeper isn’t also a reheated turd in a microwave.
- Tween Wave: a parody of dubstep, crabcore, chillwave, all three?
- Even if they were only there as a “meta” example of the ridiculous escalations brought in to pad out the same old stories, I wouldn’t mind if the britches-hoarding hillbillies came back. The police confiscated all their britches, but they were just trying to look after them is all. Who else was going to love those britches?
- Randy’s earliest Steamy Ray Vaughan track sounded an awful lot like Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge” with more farts.
- I like L.A. Noire, but Stan’s right: Most of the time it doesn’t really matter what choices you make, and that’s kind of shitty.
- “It’s like some kinda britches Holocaust?”
- “No, that’s Stevie Nicks. Steamy Nicks just shits her britches.”
- “This November, Adam Sandler shits in your eyes, ears, and mouth!”
- “Rated Arg for Pirates. Fuck you!”