SOUTH PARK Season 20 Review
Note: This review is utterly riddled with spoilers, don’t look at it if you don’t want to, you pedant.
Like pretty much everything else in 2016, we got the 20th season of SOUTH PARK we deserved. Was it a good season? In the sense that it effectively delivered great laughs in every episode, no, unfortunately not. In terms of the cultural observations made and the critiques leveled against our current political climate, however, it was a pretty damn effective one. It’s been a frustrating season because of its laser-focus on a single topic: trolling. It’s difficult not to be upset by SOUTH PARK for abandoning their formula in this way; their ability to efficiently take on an issue, skewer it for a whole episode, and move on is what has historically set them apart from any other contemporary form of comedy. Moments in this season felt less like beating a dead horse and more like grinding a dead horse into a fine powder.
‘Member when you got this joke the first time? ‘Member when it took three episodes to explain it? ‘Member when they didn’t even really wrap up this plotline?
Yeah, I ‘member…
It would be easy to cross my arms at this point, pout, and spew 900 words on everything this season got wrong, but who wants to read that? The pacing was clunky and the jokes were more heady than gut-punching, which lead to individual episodes not being satisfying, which in turn lead to waning interest in tracking with the actual message of the season. The season may prove to be more satisfying when rewatched in binge format, but taking it in incrementally proved to be more work than it really should have been. This season’s problems lay almost entirely in its execution. Last season’s rock solid writing and storytelling simply weren’t present this year. So, consider the flaws of this season sufficiently acknowledged. Let’s move on to what they were trying to say conceptually, because there were so, so many great ideas present this season.
Because admittedly, some jokes did work
The ‘memberberries may have been overplayed, but I think if they hadn’t played such a crucial role in this season, it would’ve been weaker for it. The concept of pop culture nostalgia inducing a drunken state, which in turn is directly responsible for the Make America Great Again gung-ho spirit infecting this country, is nothing short of brilliant. SOUTH PARK has always been great at critiquing the right and the left, but their critique this season cut way deeper than red versus blue; it cut to the meat of the dangerous, unquestioned presuppositions of a nation of individuals who recklessly elected a ludicrously unqualified man to the office of the presidency. For a show that thrives off of critiquing pop culture, coming out and explicitly saying “don’t trust your popular culture” is nothing short of radical. In that sense, if last season felt like a cartoon version of THEY LIVE, this season felt like Zizek’s analysis of that movie.
From there, the show’s exploration of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-style twists of Gerald’s ego was equally interesting. Gerald hid from the destruction and pain he was causing by distancing himself through the Safe Space of his office, through his online Skankhunt42 persona, and how he distinguished himself from his IRL persona as Gerald Broflovsky. The more Gerald’s online ego clashed with the reality of his life, the more fervently he resisted acknowledging the duplicity within himself. One of the most uncomfortable truths Matt and Trey unabashedly drove home this season was that who you are on the internet is exactly who you are in real life. As much as digital spaces provide us with the illusion of a separation of our many personalities, they will always manage to affect our real lives. This is an ugly concept that’s difficult to make funny, but it’s a vital one for all of us to wrestle with.
No worse than the rest of us, Gerald
This is what ultimately made Cartman’s plotline acceptable this season, even if it also wasn’t outwardly all that funny. Cartman’s painful journey breaking through the Matrix of the internet to live a web-free life definitely could have been illustrated in a funnier way (Cartman as fat Neo is low-hanging fruit, but come on Matt and Trey, it was RIGHT THERE.) What made this plotline ultimately still compelling was that even without any connection to the web, Cartman still couldn’t escape his past and the horrible person that we all know he is. Through Cartman, Matt and Trey were able to hammer home another very real and scary message: the internet is forever. Even if you fundamentally change as a person, who you were in the past can always come back to haunt you. Throughout this season, I kept wanting Cartman to flip and reveal that he had some master plan, some ultimate selfish scheme where he had been pulling everyone’s strings while hiding as a nice guy, but what Matt and Trey revealed was actually scarier. In many ways, Cartman came as close to being a good person as he will ever be this season, but by not being able to escape his past, he was dragged into stasis as the garbage human we all know and love.
Nothing ever changes and the only constant is suffering, teehee
That ultimately became the message of the whole season: this is what it is, and we’re all stuck with it. This insane world, a world increasingly more difficult to parody and mock as it fills with its own fresh horrors, is all we have. It seems Matt and Trey were thrown into existential crisis by this election. The final argument between Gerald and the Danish troll about what satire really is seems to touch on some personal issues for Matt and Trey. It was a moment of self-reflection that, far from navel gazing, drove home the concept that the beast we’ve awakened over the past year has been inside of us all. By all appearances, it seems even the institution of SOUTH PARK didn’t know how to handle this election, and that bothers me. It unsettles me that the show that I’ve turned to for most of my life suddenly seems unsure of itself.
Yet, I have to stand by the feeling that this is the only season of SOUTH PARK we could have possibly had this year. It’s only with the power of hindsight that we’ll be able explain how an entire culture has effectively trolled itself into a Donald Trump presidency. Responding viscerally in the moment to such a volatile period of change was never going to be the most effective way to process what we’ve been through. After months of feeling like we’ve all been doing little more than constantly harassing each other through the apparatus of the internet, it’s hard not to feel like Matt and Trey ultimately made the right choice with their 20th run on the air. After all this time of frenzied anger, “debate,” and vitriol routinely spilling out from our screens and into our real lives, how could the show really focus on anything else? Had the show tried to tritely move on from one topic to the next, business as usual, it would have felt incredibly hollow and inauthentic. You absolutely should feel unsatisfied with this season, but in turn you should feel unsatisfied with the status quo. Matt and Trey can only reflect the pop culture they’ve been given, and it’s not their fault that what we saw was particularly ugly.