Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

South Park acknowledges this season’s flaws without actually fixing them

Illustration for article titled South Park acknowledges this season’s flaws without actually fixing them

A little over a week ago, Newsweek published “Dispatches From The Alternate Universe Where Hillary Clinton Won,” a collection of Op-Eds from numerous websites that would have ran had the election gone the other way. South Park could have likely been featured in there, too. Somewhere in the back of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s shared mind, there’s a batch of episodes with (maybe only slightly) different jokes, different storylines, different commentaries. Somewhere in the back of their shared mind, there’s an episode called “The Very First Gentleman” that was later rejiggered into “Oh Jeez.”

That’s not to say the rest of the season from “Oh Jeez” onward was supposed to focus entirely on Clinton’s forthcoming presidency. There were already too many balls in the air for that. But over these past few episodes, it’s become clear that Parker and Stone haven’t been able to tell the story they originally planned to tell—if only in outline form—in the back half of their season. Whether it’s the lack of consistent message or the emphasis on convoluted plot mechanics over jokes, South Park has felt unfocused for a few weeks now.

Parker and Stone seem to be aware of this. As Bedrager tells Gerald during their confrontation on the bridge, “Maybe this is a new, post-funny era of satire,” driving home how hard it is to lampoon something like the dawn of Donald Trump’s presidency—an event so outrageous, it already feels like a piece of exaggerated dark (very dark) comedy. It already feels like satire. It’s telling that, with their own Trump surrogate, Mr. Garrison, Parker and Stone simply have to depict him acting like the President-elect does on an everyday basis. Garrison may swear more, but his actions and attitudes aren’t all that different from the real McCoy. Parker and Stone haven’t had to alter Donald Trump too much to fit into the South Park universe.

But Bedrager’s observation also misses the point. The post-election episodes of South Park haven’t faltered more so than usual because the truth is stranger than fiction. They’ve faltered because, like so many of us, Parker and Stone incorrectly predicted history. In the past, the show’s eleventh-hour production schedule has made for sharper comedy when it comes to current events. But what happens when the writers get these events wrong? What happens when it becomes evident that, as satirists, they aren’t quite as keyed in to the political landscape as they thought?

What happens is we get episodes like “The End Of Serialization As We Know It,” whose title is more observant of this season’s shortcomings than anything contained within its 30 minutes. Most of it centers around a coordinated attack to literally break the internet before Troll Trace can inflict too much damage and send the globe into full-on apocalypse. Drawing upon the worst elements of his dad’s behavior (complete with a Boston soundtrack), Kyle works to overload message boards with hate, all while Elon Musk runs everything through his SpaceX servers. The plan works, the internet gets destroyed, and the entire world gets a reset…for now. As the ”new internet” gets relaunched, the first email—sent by a senior citizen in Florida—already contains a dick pic and the word “fag.” Everything’s set up to fall right back into place.

That’s not much of a grand statement for a season finale of South Park. It ultimately amounts to little more than “People are shitty and will always be shitty and the internet makes them more shitty or at least reflects their shittiness.” The show’s already explored all of those ideas before in more interesting (and funnier) ways. It all points to Parker and Stone being thrown for a loop by the election results, never being able to fully recover. Part of why there’s not a strong final thesis for season 20 is because they’ve gotten so bogged down in plot, they haven’t had time to focus on a coherent theme.


Even worse, they never circle back to the season’s funniest gag: the Member Berries. South Park has always had the luxury of being able to fall back on a good joke when the message falls flat, but here, the berries only get featured in one brief shot, and with no lines. What happened with the older Member Berries from the 1940s? What was their final plan? Where’s Caitlin Jenner? Featuring any of these things would automatically make “The End Of Serialization As We Know It” funnier, and yet it all remains mysteriously absent.

Maybe Parker and Stone are saving some of it for next season. But that would mean going against the episode’s title and their own self-awareness of South Park’s current flaws. The serialization format has worked like gangbusters in the recent past (especially last season), but like its characters, maybe it’s time the show gets a clean slate. Maybe it’s time for Parker and Stone to retry their hand at self-contained episodes; to not try and stay one step ahead of current events. And if they do grant themselves a reset, let’s hope they don’t follow the lead of the old man from Florida. Let’s hope they don’t repeat this season’s mistakes right off the bat.


Stray observations

  • At this point, Cartman’s misogyny may be uglier than ever, especially with his fear of women harvesting men’s semen on Mars. It’s interesting to see him be outwardly gentle while still being so vile.
  • Also, the apparatus pulsating over his balls was a wonderfully twisted visual gag.
  • “The key code to the conference room is 9. That’s it. 9.” Easily the best joke of the night.
  • “Mr. President, you can’t just sit there with your stank-face.”
  • That’s a wrap for season 20. I still very much enjoyed the front half and “Members Only,” and I will of course forever be grateful for the introduction of the Member Berries. What did the rest of you think?