There’s an old saying in show business: “Death is easy. Comedy is hard.” If that’s the case, then writing a good sitcom is near impossible. Cranking out several episodes every year is already a daunting task. Add to it the challenge of meeting a strict jokes-per-page quota and you have yourself an excruciating ordeal. There are only so many stories to tell and jokes to crack before a series grows stale. It’s rare for even the best sitcoms to avoid a dip in quality. A show that has been on the air for well over a decade and still continues to improve is a freak of nature. Comedy Central’s SOUTH PARK is one such freak. With 20 seasons and nearly 300 episodes under its belt, SOUTH PARK is cleverer than ever.

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Cartman, Stan, Kenny & Kyle

How can a series with such a long life span still feel fresh and relevant? The answer is change. Unlike most television shows that stick to a rigid formula, SOUTH PARK continues to evolve. The show has been reshaped and restructured again and again. In recent years, SOUTH PARK has undergone its most drastic change yet: Serialized Storytelling, which is the continuation of story lines from episode to episode. After a couple of flawed attempts, it appears that the writers have finally mastered this form of narrative structure. SOUTH PARK’s 20th season is, without a doubt, the show’s most ambitious season yet. One that utilizes the series’ unique brand of social commentary in a brilliant new way.

The Evolution of SOUTH PARK

What started out as a crass, apolitical program has grown into one of the most insightful satires on television. This change is not the result of a shift in creative control, since creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have remained at the helm throughout the series’ duration. What we are seeing is a change of the writers themselves. Over the last two decades, Stone and Parker have matured (though thankfully not too much), and they have spent the past 20 years cultivating their creative process. Their growth manifests in three major areas: the purpose of their material, the development/production of each episode, and a change in structure.

Let’s begin with purpose. In SOUTH PARK’s first few seasons, it appeared that the show was deliberately offensive just for the sake of being edgy. As the series progressed, Stone and Parker began to address controversial issues in order provide significant social commentary. Compare the show’s pilot, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” (a straightforward adventure filled with gratuitous vulgarity), to the season 10 two-parter, “Cartoon Wars”. The latter is a response to a Danish newspaper’s publication of a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad and the violent protests it spurred.

READ: The Necessary Balance of Political Correctness in Comedy

“Cartoon Wars” argues for the importance of free speech at any cost, stating that no subject should be considered taboo. As Kyle says in the episode’s climax: “Either it’s all okay, or none of it is.” In fact, Parker and Stone intended to show an uncensored depiction of the prophet Muhammad in order to solidify this point, but Comedy Central intervened. Whether or not you agree with their take on the issue, it is clear that the duo have something to say and they are willing to push the boundaries in order to make their point.

Now let’s examine the show’s production schedule. As explored in the short documentary, 6 DAYS TO AIR, the production schedule for SOUTH PARK is entirely unique. Unlike most Television shows where all of the episodes are written before the season begins, each episode of SOUTH PARK is written and produced in the week before it airs. According to Parker and Stone, this was a result of their tendency to procrastinate. But the duo quickly discovered that this short turn around allowed them to touch upon current issues.

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Trey Parker and Matt Stone

The show has been able to lampoon recent events in as little as 24 hours after they occurred (check out any of their post-election episodes). This gives the series an up-to-the-minute relevance that is completely unparalleled in the world of scripted television.  When combined with their most recent change in structure, this creates a type of satirical storytelling that has never been attempted in the history of television. At least not on this scale.

This structural change is the introduction of continuity, a very recent addition to the SOUTH PARK formula. Before now, the show possessed an episodic structure. Occasionally, there would be a two or even three part story line, but for the most part, every episode had its own self-contained story. But in season 18, something happened that would change the show forever.

READ: The Savory Satire of SILICON VALLEY

In the season 18 premiere, the boys quit school in order to run a new starter company. They made quite an exit, telling all of their classmates to go… uh… do something with themselves. Unsurprisingly, their company failed. The following episode involved the boys returning to school and dealing with the fallout of their actions. It was a funny idea, and I didn’t expect the continuity to extend beyond this.

Randy Marsh as Lorde
“I am Lorde, yayaya!”

A contributor for SPIN.com wrote a piece criticizing this episode for a joke that they clearly misunderstood. The gag in question involved a character Randy disguising himself as singer/song-writer Lorde when the boys invited their classmates to a big party promising that the musician would be there to perform. It was just a stupid, throwaway joke. But the contributor took it as an insult to the musician’s appearance. In response, the show’s writers devoted the next episode to exploring the absurd notion that Randy is living a double life as a young, female pop-singer. This was the moment when the floodgates opened.

The Serialized Satire

The rest of Season 18 was filled with recurring gags and story lines. All of it culminated in a season finale involving Lorde, holograms, Youtube videos, and generation gaps. If this sounds a little convoluted, that’s because it was. It seemed like the writers were trying to say… something. But the message wasn’t clear. This was an imperfect approach to serialized storytelling, but it was just the beginning. Season 19 took it a step further with SOUTH PARK’s first, truly serialized season. Sure, most of the episodes still had self-contained stories, but they all revolved around the themes of gentrification and our Politically Correct culture.

Once again, not all of the elements meshed. As the season unfolded, the protagonists had discovered that the country’s increasingly P.C. attitude and the recent trend of gentrification were in fact part of a plan devised by sentient computer ads intent on taking over the world. The entire season felt as though it was building towards something big, but the finale quickly resolved the problem and everything returned to normal. In addition to this, the episode attempted to comment on the issue of gun violence. But this topic (while funny) didn’t really tie into the season’s overarching theme and felt tacked on. Nevertheless, this was a solid season and a major step forward for the show. Now approaching the end of Season 20, it seems as though SOUTH PARK has finally got it right.

READ: RICK AND MORTY: Excellence Among Mediums

I must admit, when I first saw the season 20 premiere, I was disappointed. It felt like a collection of unrelated ideas. There was no real connection. No meaningful statement. It felt like a dud. But that’s because I was still analyzing the show under its old structure. I didn’t realize what was actually going on. This episode wasn’t supposed to make one clear statement. It was meant to set the stage. It established several plot lines that would unfold throughout the season. What follows is my analysis of SOUTH PARK’s 20th season. I’m not saying whether or not I agree with the arguments made, nor am I saying that this is exactly what the writers intended. I am just presenting my interpretation of the material.

This season has repeatedly poked fun at the 2016 presidential election. In this story line, Mr. Garrison (used as a stand-in for Donald Trump) is running against democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. The adults of SOUTH PARK are politically divided, while simultaneously being dissatisfied with their own party’s candidate. Disillusioned with the system, the adults have turned towards a sentient fruit known as Member Berries. These grape-like beings constantly reminisce about the past. When consumed, these berries induce a state of nostalgic-euphoria. These feelings of nostalgia are one of the reasons why Garrison (Trump) and his promises of “Making America Great Again” have garnered so much support.

You 'member? I 'member!
“You ‘member? I ‘member!”

The writers argue that the American people are frustrated with the current state of things and wish to return to a simpler time. But there is a dark side to this nostalgia. This is reflected in the statements made by the Member Berries: “‘Member Star Wars? ‘Member Chewbacca? ‘Member the Millennium Falcon? ‘Member the Cold War? ‘Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans? ‘Member when Marriage was just between a man and a woman?” These lines illustrate that the world has never been simple. We are just looking at the past through rose-colored glasses.

Simultaneously, the show explores a story line involving the children of SOUTH PARK. It presents the elementary school students engaged in a battle of the sexes, which feels very apropos given the fact that our most recent election was between the first female presidential nominee and a man accused of misogynistic behavior. This gender war also ties into another story line, one that focuses on social media and how it keeps us disconnected from the people around us. In this plot, we see that the boy-girl feud is actually being fueled by Kyle’s father, Gerald, who is secretly operating as an internet troll. He says terrible things about female students while hiding behind a veil of anonymity. Once two students (Cartman and Heidi) are completely cut off from social media, they are finally able to enjoy life and even start a relationship. This story line demonstrates that the media is only exasperating our problems. It is feeding the flames and driving us apart.

READ: Respect My Authoritay: Requiem of Eric Cartman

Stone and Parker are also able to draw comparisons between the social media plot and the political story line. In the episode “Fort Collins”, Gerald remarks that internet trolling reminds him of what it was like to be a kid. He is just like the other adults. He longs for a simpler time. And this isn’t the only way in which Gerald’s immature behavior ties back into Mr. Garrison’s story.

Having just won the election, Mr. Garrison barges into the elementary school and confronts P.C. Principal (a character representative of our current politically correct climate). Garrison tells him: “You helped create me. You insisted that I was a bigot. That I was an intolerant relic left over from another time.” Just like Mr. Garrison’s offensive statements, Gerald’s trolling is a negative reaction to our increasingly P.C. culture.

Mr. Garrison Vs. Hillary Clinton
Mr. Garrison Vs. Hillary Clinton

Censoring what you say doesn’t magically make you an open-minded individual. Constantly being told what they can and cannot say has only made certain people angry. They feel that the world is changing so fast and that they are being forced to alter their personalities in order to be part of it. This has given rise to an extreme, vocal opposition. The show demonstrates that the solution is not to limit what we say, but to communicate. To converse with those whose opinions differ from our own. To find a middle ground.

Conclusion

SOUTH PARK’s 20th season demonstrates how these seemingly disparate issues (politics, nostalgia, sexism, P.C. culture and social media) are actually interconnected. It shows how these topics weave together and feed into one another. This season perfectly reflects who we are, right here and right now. We are a nation divided. A group of people disconnected from one another. Our country has been split in two, with both halves viewing the opposing side as an enemy. We have turned complicated problems into black-and-white issues. Subjects that should require an informed discussion have been simplified. There is no longer a middle ground. There is right and there is wrong. And we all want to be right, don’t we? SOUTH PARK no longer uses standalone episodes to address individual issues. It uses separate, ongoing story lines to address the many different facets of western culture. Using the entire season to paint a picture of American society in its entirety.

 

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