the delicate satire of south park

buckle up, buckaroo

The appeal of “South Park” has long rested on its ability to take on current events with wit and irreverence, distilling big issues into easily digestible episodes that manage to make you both laugh and think a little. Among my favorite “South Park” episodes are the two-part “Go God Go” and “Go God Go XII,” which I watched with my mom sometime in middle school. “South Park” may be questionable family viewing, but I fondly remember nights like those regardless.

The story starts with Cartman, too impatient to get his hands on a Nintendo Wii (again, this is from 10 years ago; feel old yet?), freezing himself in a snowstorm with the intention of thawing out when it’s released. He accidentally wakes up in the year 2546 to a world gone completely religion-free, and war rages between three separate atheist factions over which of their acronymic organization names is superior. In this case, the episodes satirized both religious extremism and the craze back then to get a Wii; it’s a bizarre mixture, but “South Park” is known for these bizarre mixtures.

According to our good friend Wikipedia, satire is defined as a genre “in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals … or society itself, into improvement.” Series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker likewise imbue their episodes with little messages about how badly the world operates, and in “Go God Go,” they mock religious extremism with the takeaway lesson that people can be assholes over atheism just as much as they can be assholes over religion. It’s kind of a “well, duh” message, and I doubt Stone and Parker really intended to teach much at all—when they take on current events, they typically just say something mildly illuminating and throw in a fart joke or something. The humor always comes first; whatever agenda they might have does not distract from that fact.

Strangely, Stone and Parker’s brand of satire has seen a resurgence in praise. A New York Times article from December of last year, titled “How South Park Perfectly Captures Our Era of Outrage,” extolled the latest season of “South Park” for its newfound ability to “make more complex arguments” on more complex issues. Indeed, season 19 of “South Park” deals with a motley of hot-button issues: police violence (“Naughty Ninjas”), gentrification (“The City Part of Town”), illegal immigration (“Where My Country Gone?”), freedom of the press (“Truth and Advertising”), gun control (“PC Principal Final Justice”), and yaoi, or gay Japanese manga (“Tweek x Craig”). Caitlyn Jenner is a recurring character, and rarely does an episode go by without her gorily running over someone as a satire of society’s collective decision, in an effort to be more accepting towards marginalized groups, to ignore the fact that the real Jenner killed someone in a car accident.

Like with the “Go God Go” episodes, the message—in this case, that it’s not okay to ignore Jenner’s crime just because we want to have positive attitudes towards people who are trans—isn’t particularly original regardless of whether you agree or disagree. Many of the other messages of “South Park” are similarly standard; for example, “Naughty Ninjas” demonstrated the disturbingly psychopathic nature of some police officers as well as society’s need for police officers, and “The City Part of Town” showed how the prosperity that gentrification brings often further marginalizes members of the lower class. Maybe the Times’ analysis is a reflection of how deeply polarized the United States has become, where traditionally moderate ideas are now taken as novel and praiseworthy. The article is still a bit laughable, not only because the “complex” messages of “South Park” can be found in think pieces all over the internet, not only because “South Park” episodes have contained social messages for literal decades, but also because the last season’s intermittently aggressive agenda actually detracts from the show’s enjoyability.

The main problem with Season 19 comes when the show lets its messages override the main purpose of a cartoon, which is to make its audience laugh. This is most evident in their season-long derision of “PC” (politically correct) culture, at the helm of which is the new character PC Principal, a stereotypical frat boy (read: white, cisgender, aggressively heterosexual) who combats microaggressions using verbal and physical violence. While it can be entertaining to see Cartman get pulverized for saying “spokesman” instead of “spokesperson” in the first episode, PC Principal’s mixture of extreme political correctness and bellicose nature (“Hypocrisy!” the show seems to scream every time he’s on screen) quickly grows tiring.

Scenes that deal with PC culture oftentimes overextend into outright pedantry. Episode “Safe Space” is the worst offender, in which Butters is forced to filter through Twitter feeds and remove all of the negative comments. The premise is funny enough—it’s topical! It’s relevant! It ends up making fun of Demi Lovato and Vin Diesel! But the story gets bogged down with attempts to actively lecture the audience; towards the end, a caped comic book-esque character literally named Reality interrupts a charity gala to berate the audience, saying, “We eat too much. We take our spoiled lives for granted. Feel a little bad about it sometimes,” in an effort to mock the idea of safe spaces. “I’m sorry the world isn’t one big liberal-arts college campus!” he even says, as if straight out of a Breitbart article. The episode ends with the townspeople publicly hanging him.

Satire is a difficult genre, in part because the desire to imbue the episode with a lesson can detract from its humor. In “South Park,” its strongest forms follow Stone and Parker’s traditional formula of putting the humor at the forefront, not least because those episodes will have a larger reach and thus a higher chance of actually getting the message through. The Times article is then dubious in its praise of the season’s messages and ignorance of all its other elements; it even ends by extolling the episodes for “[prescribing] more conversation,” an adaptation of the idea of “starting a dialogue” which multiple episodes directly mock. “South Park” will hopefully not go down the road of “Safe Space,” despite what some critics may desire, and thankfully there’s evidence that Parker and Stone aren’t always lax on letting messages get in the way. At the end of one episode, “Where My Country Gone,” Kyle launches into a cheesy speech on what sorts of lessons the townspeople have learned for the past half an hour. When he realizes everyone is impatiently glaring at him, he backs down and lets the implicit message remain implicit.