In 2016, Trey Parker and Matt Stone celebrated twenty years making one of America's best-loved shows with a turbulent season that proved not even South Park was immune to the Trump effect. With a plot focused heavily on internet trolls and the 2017 presidential election, South Park became even more reactionary than normal—with mixed results. Its new season promises to scale things back and reignite the joyful stupidity of old. That's a good thing.
For their 20 season, Parker and Stone decided to run with serialized episodes with an ongoing story. They had trialed the serialized format during season eighteen as a challenge to themselves to prevent the show from getting stale, and it worked as an experiment in shaking things up.
But for viewers, it was a big change to deal with. You could no longer drop in and out of the show as you pleased: The show required you to be there from the beginning to end. Not much of a stretch for hardcore fans, but a mind bender for casual viewers. The American news cycle began to outpace Parker and Stone, who write and produce every single episode of South Park in six days. (The stressful process of making an episode is captured in the must-see documentary Six Days to Air.)
While you have to applaud Parker and Stone for their work ethic (the duo have only missed their deadline once in twenty years, when a blackout in Los Angeles prevented the team at South Park Studios from finishing an episode), in season twenty they became victims of reacting to the Trump-driven news cycle that challenged the very nature of satirical comedy.
Because how do you poke fun at what's already ridiculous? Within a 24-hour period memes are born and then trashed to death, comedians tweet jokes that go viral, and it's all wrapped up by the time late night show hosts are delivering their monologues. South Park was landing at the end of each loaded week with a clunk. Mr. Garrison and Caitlyn Jenner became stand-ins for Trump and Mike Pence in the show's take on the election, but the jokes lacked bite because they were stating the obvious rather than satirizing the situation. The plot got convoluted, and the gags got buried. The hunt for a troll called Shankhunt42 was stretched beyond having any relevance to the story and a running bit about nostalgic reboots that took jabs at Star Wars: The Force Awakens became repetitive.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times Parker admitted they'd screwed up: "We fell into the same trap that Saturday Night Live fell into, where it was like, 'Dude, we're just becoming CNN now. We're becoming: Tune in to see what we're going to say about Trump.' Matt and I hated it but we got stuck in it somehow."
South Park has always been a topical show, but before Trump, there was less pressure for Parker and Stone to tackle certain topics. You always got the feeling they were doing exactly as they pleased. In the past they've taken on the US Invasion of Iraq ("I'm A Little Bit Country"), the 2004 Presidential election ("Douche and Turd"), Hilton ("Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset"), Scientology and Tom Cruise ("Trapped in the Closet" among many other episodes about the cult), and the trial of George Zimmerman ("World War Zimmerman"). What these episodes have in common is they're free of the need to incorporate daily news into each episode. With intricate plotting, Parker, Stone, and their writing staff were able to wrangle topical issues with ease rather than beginning each episode with a mandate.
American politics consumed the pop culture conversation from the minute it was clear Trump was running for President, and then came an expectation that comedy heavyweights would be there to take the new regime down. Many mainstream comics struggled to deliver anything truly scathing: The Daily Show failed to make an impression with its new host Trevor Noah; Saturday Night Live filled their show with hammy reenactments of each week's events, but they couldn't shake the fact Trump had hosted the show prior to accepting the presidential nomination. Even the affable Jimmy Fallon took a hit—The Tonight Show died the minute he ruffled Trump's hair during an interview. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and This Week Tonight with John Oliver fared better, choosing simply to state the facts with razor-sharp comedic analysis that picked up the slack from lackluster news coverage.
By becoming a slave to what's topical, South Park took a major hit. I can't help but feel we're all at least partly responsible. Each week I couldn't wait to see how South Park would take down whoever deserved it the most. The show became like a gladiator arena in ancient Rome, and viewers wanted blood. We forgot that the best episodes of South Park jive with whatever Parker and Stone find funny. The show excels at expressing their comedic sensibilities through the filter of the ludicrous cartoon town they created.
With season 21, there's a chance to make South Park stupid again. Parker says their goal this season is to return the show to its former glory. "I want to get back to Cartman dressing up like a robot and [screwing] with Butters because to me, that's the bread and butter of South Park: kids being kids and being ridiculous and outrageous but not 'did you see what Trump did last night?' Because I don't give a… anymore." What a relief.
Topical episodes aren't banned completely. The opening episode of season 21, "White People Renovating Houses," focuses on the white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville. In the episode, protesters march on the streets of South Park with tiki torches and confederate flags, and Randy Marsh gets caught up in it. The President isn't mentioned once by name.
It will be interesting to see how long South Park can avoid the giant Trump in the room. As the American political climate spirals out of control, Parker and Stone can't be judged too harshly for reacting to the times they've lived in. As satirists with a 20-year-old global megaphone they are in a position of power to call bullshit on authority—it just so happens that in 2017, the very medium of satire is being called into question.
We need a space to laugh as a relief from the insanity unfolding around us and South Park is great when it slays a celebrity or politician. But the best thing about the show is its ability to live in both worlds and the 20 season has shown Parker and Stone they aren't beholden to anything. Laugher is the best medicine when the air is toxic.
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