Is satire morally defendable when its misuse puts Donald Trump in the White House? “South Park” didn’t pose this question exactly during their rushed and overloaded Season 20 finale, but it’s more or less what we were left wondering. As Kyle and his cohorts scrambled to form a makeshift Trevor’s Axiom, Cartman contemplated a future where men were mined for their semen and jokes, Sheila Broflowski tried not to examine her husband’s search history, and Gerald himself tried to wipe out the internet before she could, the specter of Donald Trump (embodied by Mr. Garrison) hovered over everything — a dark shadow that would remain no matter what world “South Park” was left with.
One has to imagine this is how it felt writing the final half of the season for Trey Parker and Matt Stone. No matter what they did, Season 21 would air under a Trump presidency. We’ve noted already how badly the election sideswiped the duo’s grand narrative plans, and imagining a future with that man in our nation’s highest office is enough to make anyone reconsider their agenda anyway. The 2016 election drew up fundamental questions in all of us, which, for these creators, meant how “South Park” continues to function in 2017.
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Beyond the aforementioned looming question, the duo tackled their new system, implemented over the last few years: serialization. If the episode title alone isn’t enough of a clue (“The End of Serialization As We Know It”), the narrative made sure to address what the series could look like moving forward. [spoilers ahead ] The internet, and all its historic data, was destroyed. After a half-heroic, half-self-serving act by Gerald and a selfless gesture by his son (of course), “South Park” was given the option to “start over. But even though Kyle’s hopeful narration wanted us to buy into an optimistic conclusion, the new era instead repeated the mistakes of the old one — and fast.
Whether all this means returning to an episodic structure in Season 21 is unsettled — though likely, I’d say — but Parker and Stone’s message was otherwise clear: What they’ve been doing isn’t working anymore, and it’s time for a change.
That being said, there are elements of the finale that deserve commendation: Setting up a scenario in which President Garrison would sincerely praise Kyle for his trolling skills — as a service he’s providing his country — is a brief moment of brilliance. So to was the use of Rick Rolling as torture music against Gerald and the implicit “Star Wars” references (when Kyle led a “coordinated cyber attack” against
the Death Star Troll Trace, as well as Gerald’s final battle with the faux-leader of Denmark). I wish there could have been more time to explore the Danish leader’s assertion that “Maybe this is a new, post-funny era of satire?”
But those fixtures make for the kind of jokes Parker and Stone can build on when they’re not tied down by a serialized format. What kind of episodes could they have unleashed if they were free from a larger story? Instead of wrapping up as many loose ends as possible Wednesday night, we could have seen more specific commentary on recent events or a clearer message from voices who have been proven valuably insightful.
And value is the key. I don’t know if it’s a completely sound argument to say Season 20 verified that “South Park” is better off in an episodic format. Last season was largely flawless, after all. But what’s important is that “South Park” remains unencumbered by anything. The series’ worth is derived from its message and its humor, both of which thrive on freedom of speech. They always have, dating back to when cursing on cable was as taboo as nudity is now. At its peak, “South Park” delivered unparalleled satire, and providing at peak levels to a nation in need of relief as well as fresh perspectives is more important than ever. How they come up with it every week is up to them, but fighting the good fight is worth it, even if there’s no tomorrow.