To say “South Park” has broached some bold topics in its first 18 seasons is akin to saying Cartman is a sociopath — neither statement tells the full story. But to encompass all of the experimental methods, adventurous new directions and consistently eviscerating humor of Comedy Central’s biting satire would take far too long, so let’s examine how Trey Parker and Matt Stone are pushing the new season of “South Park” to a whole new level of contemporary commentary.
In short, “South Park” has gone serialized. After 18 seasons with a largely episodic structure — with notable exceptions being Kenny’s semi-permanent death, “Imaginationland” and experiments with serial storytelling last year — the daily lives of this quiet little mountain town are now continuing on, with yesterday affecting today and today’s choices bringing on an altered tomorrow.
That’s not to say the kids are growing up. Though that might feel like a requisite, it’s as doubtful Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny start aging now as it’s ever been. Like everything involved in “South Park” episodes, though, serialization is not merely a formal choice. It’s a pointed one, and it’s making its point well.
It all began — narratively — with the introduction of a new principal at “South Park” elementary. Principal PC was so disgusted by the habits of his adopted school and the town surrounding it, he immediately set forth on a quest to check everyone’s privilege, which means “getting someone to acknowledge their own inherent privileges and set them aside to better understand another human’s plight” (as defined by a fellow member of the PC fraternity, founded shortly after the principal’s arrival). Principal PC and his hard-drinking, prank-pulling gang of jocular PC bros quickly started bullying everyone within earshot whose terminology was off, motives were questionable or general demeanor deemed politically incorrect.
In doing so, Principal PC called out “South Park” itself in his opening speech, citing offensive and outdated events from past episodes to illustrate how the town was stuck in a “time warp.” An African American chef forced to sing soul songs to his white patrons, fake transgender advocates who really just wanted to use women’s restrooms and a white man who thinks he’s Chinese speaking in a thick, confusing accent — all of these series staples sound horrifically preposterous out of context, and the latter example — spurred on by the owner of City Wok, Tuong Lu Kim, muttering his signature catchphrase, “Ooo-ah, I hate the Mongolians” — lead Principal PC to the abrupt exclamation of “What the fuck is this?”
WTF indeed. Any attempt to respond was met with mandatory detention or brutal violence (as Cartman learned the hard way), just as any argument against politically correct social movements in the real world are overtaken by fear of being labeled an insensitive relic; a label the show wants to avoid for itself. By name-checking themselves in the quest to curb PC privilege (so to speak), Parker and Stone are addressing the possibility that they’ve become as outdated as the words and stereotypes they used over a decade ago. And, per usual, their vessel of choice is ideal. Principal PC — a douchey frat bro — compliments the cause, perfectly comparing the bullying tactics of one widely-despised group with another that’s virtually irreproachable.
But the “South Park” writers don’t stop where they typically do. Rather than releasing a self-contained episode that may raise a few flags as the season opener, they’re keeping the discussion going. As sharp, effective and thought-provoking as the events brought on by this character become over the course of the Season 19 premiere, he shows up again in Episode 2, and then again in the third, fourth and fifth episodes. It appears he and his storyline, which have drastically changed the town — they have a Whole Foods now! — are here to stay, and with them, the conversation started by his introduction. By using the trendy serialized structuring, Parker and Stone are placing extra emphasis on the topic and adding relevancy to “South Park.”
It’s important to note that while PC’s ruffian tactics are never endorsed, the kids of “South Park” (always the moral voice of reason) aren’t against progress or many of the movements lead by their new principal. They’re only protesting how he goes about it, as well as the reason for which so many people have hopped on board. In the premiere’s climactic moment, typically reserved for a closing argument, Kyle instead gives in and supports PC culture. The alternative — Cartman unleashing offensive minority stereotypes on the PC frat house — was too ugly. Kyle’s decision not only opens the door for a city-wide takeover by the aggressively-PC frat bros but also provides narrative drive for the continuation of this story.
The question then becomes, “Is Principal PC as right about ‘South Park’ [the show] as he is about South Park?” Is the show stuck in the past even as it regularly skewers the most topical events of the present? After 18 years, it would be easy to take “South Park” for granted. So much content executed at a high level begins to blend together over time, and the generation of teenagers who fell in love with the show when it began may see it as outdated in modern society — even if it’s still one of the best shows on TV. With an admirable sense of self-awareness, Parker and Stone have taken note, and this is the result: a subtle structural revamp for the season made to look more like today’s most popular television, but maintaining a nearly identical construct on an episode-by-episode basis.
What will be fun to find out is how (and when) “South Park” will end its first serialized event. Is this a genuine attempt at something new? Is it a comment on audience attention spans? Is it built toward bingeing (because it is now bingeable via Hulu)? Is it going to continue into future seasons? Is “South Park” going to become its own twisted version of an anthology series? Is it all of the above?
No matter the result, Season 19 has already succeeded in reminding us of the series’ relevancy. By putting itself on trial, “South Park” has found yet another new form of cultural criticism — whether it’s politically correct or not.
“South Park” airs Wednesdays on Comedy Central at 10pm. The full season is available now — with new episodes Thursday mornings — on Hulu.