South Park is turning 20, I am turning 37, and I think the thrill is gone.
I don’t think the show has changed, exactly.
South Park has always prided itself on its equal-opportunity comic menace. The show’s modus operandi is about profanely shredding anything it find pretentious and absurd across all ideologies, institutions, politics, and religions. The foul language, the scorched-earth satire, the at-times intricately elaborate outlandishness, the to-the-minute commentary. I’ve been here for all of it, and I’ve liked a lot of it.
I do think I have changed, though.
South Park long has espoused particular point of view, even though it loves playing off like it has none. Many episodes, beyond holding current events up to funhouse mirrors, place a moral controversy at the center. After all the insanity dies down, those episodes often wind up with Stan as its moral center and he pronounces what he has learned.
On one level, the South Park kids’ professed lessons learned is a parody of moralistic family TV. Which is fine, if you don’t take the show seriously. It is a comedy, after all. However, such outcomes also lend themselves to an overall message of “Everything and everyone is lame and full of shit, so whatever.”
Sure, it was funny as hell watching South Park turn Barack Obama’s win in the 2008 election into an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist caper with Obama and John McCain as teammates. Just as pure silliness. And then I start thinking about how it furthers this all-too-common take you see among your friends on Facebook: “Both candidates are the same, both parties are the same, and they’re just taking us all for a ride.”
Cue apathy, trolling, and performative cynicism.
So imagine taking in 20 years of this show through all of one’s formative years, of “Laugh at everything” and “Relax, it’s all absurd.”
Is it, though?
Perhaps it was easier to take in this worldview in a world where Beavis and Butt-Head was subversive, in which earnestness seemed so uncool, in which many Americans got their news from Nightline instead of The Daily Show. Maybe it was easier to laugh at everything when you couldn’t say shit on basic cable, or a president was impeached over a blowjob.
Maybe it’s easier, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to misguidedly joke about hate crime legislation and R. Kelly when they’ll never be victims of either hate crimes or Kelly. Maybe it’s easier to totally joke on the common misconception of “safe spaces” when they’re not dealing with oppression and feeling comfortable enough to speak on social justice issues without censure.
Maybe it’s easier to do an entire Jonas Brothers episode about boys slut-shaming girls, boys trying to manipulate girls into being sluts, corporate powers that both exploit girls’ sexualities while shaming said sexualities, but end it with Kenny’s girlfriend obliging to perform oral sex on him as a thank-you and undermining the episode’s prior stances, when none of these issues happen to them.
Maybe it’s harder now to joke about liberals’ pretentious responses in the name of acceptance and inclusivity, when we have a majority of people in America who just want to call people niggers and chinks and spics and fags because that’s “telling it like it is” and “political correctness” is lame.
Maybe it’s harder to troll liberals as the worst in a world where trolling them is now raison d’etre for an entire political party in control of the three branches of government and most statehouses.
And maybe it’s most difficult these days to rehash a tired election joke about choosing between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich, when one of those choices was beyond abnormal. When one of those choices was Donald Trump, and his election both placed the status quo in Racist Kooktown and revealed how much America’s status quo has been Racist Kooktown all along.
South Park Season 20, happening during the 2016 presidential election, sagged under the weight of its serialized narrative and not knowing what to do with Trump, an ultimate troll dragging his campaign through dozens of horrible controversies.
Just the season before, South Park often crackled with uneasiness as it tried to reckon its place in a 21st-century America where irreverence is the norm. It was difficult to figure out where the show was going, but ultimately it meditated on whether the world still needed a South Park or was it show finally passé. Yet as it showed a gentrifying town of craft beer, Whole Foods and aggro PC bros, was South Park also saying the world was too soft for it?
We’ve got the President of the United States threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea on the floor of the United Nations. White supremacists march in Charlottesville’s streets with torches, riot police in St. Louis chant “whose streets, our streets” amid people protesting police brutality, the pall of Russia lays over the White House, and rampant deportation forces leave immigrant communities in fear while violating law after law.
The past eight months have felt like years, as we live day to day in chaos and awaken each morning in fear of what unhinged thing this unhinged president may say next. Ain’t nothing soft about all this.
And yet Trey Parker and Matt Stone say this season’s South Park will not mention Trump by name at all. But how could it, when they instead turned Mr. Garrison into Trump? Way to punt when this is the show that is supposed to fearlessly comment on everything and call it by its name.
Watching last week’s season premiere “White People Renovating Houses,” I kept asking myself what was this show trying to say? It took the frightening visage of white supremacists chanting “You will not replace us” and transferred it to Darryl and his working-class whites – ostensible Trump supporters – protesting automation and virtual assistants for killing their blue-collar jobs.
Is this subversive, by showing how the white working class is fighting the wrong enemy? On the other hand, doesn’t this further propagate the false narrative of Trump voters being working-class whites, when his support went across all income levels of whites?
The running joke of South Park’s rednecks waving the Confederate flag to solve all their problems draws some laughs. But in the real world, we know it wasn’t just uneducated slobs marching over those Confederate statues. Many of those marchers looked decidedly non-redneck.
Even though the rednecks are pitting themselves against technology taking their jobs (sorry, jerbs) rather than nonwhites, they still rally while using the same paraphernalia and imagery touted by the white nationalists in Charlottesville: tiki torches, Confederate flags, and Southern Nationalist shields. Why is this any of this here, beyond the broadest idea of “South Park takes on”?
By linking the rednecks’ aversion to technology with the racist imagery, South Park winds up pitting their bigotry as coming from the same place – an inability to change with the times.
As if this is what racism is or how it works. Thanks, guys.
Furthermore, the episode uses Randy Marsh’s home-renovation show as a metaphor for racism and white privilege. At the end of the episode, working-class Darryl tearfully admits to middle-class Randy that he can’t renovate his house by tearing down the wall between the dining room and kitchen because it’s a load-bearing wall and the whole house could come down, and he can’t handle that.
This is the most pointed and powerful critique on racism that I can remember the show ever making. It’s white privilege in a nutshell, and how the reluctance to let go of it is because it built the house whites live in.
The moment still gives into the idea that poor whites are the racists and middle-class whites are more enlightened, as Randy sympathizes with Darryl while still telling him that mining coal or driving a truck don’t have great outlooks for the future.
However, the episode then has Randy buttress the load-bearing wall and renovate Darryl’s house. Sharon puts shishi gloss on the Confederate décor, too.
We just watched Randy, Darryl and Sharon keep all the racist crap while making the racist a better house to live in. In many ways, this is what our dominant society ends up doing. But I have no idea if that’s the social commentary South Park was going for, and I don’t like this feeling.
These times are extreme. They’re times that demand sides be taken, frankly, in this fight for the future. South Park’s professed insistence on not taking one may be undoing my enjoyment of the show.
I know I’m not supposed to take South Park so seriously, but what am I supposed to do when this thing has been on most of my life, and I’ve changed more than it?
Look at me, caring about stuff. Lame.