I had seen the show a few times, way back when, in high school and elementary school. Back then I was probably more entertained by all the gross-out, over-the-top humor than I was by what I’ve come to see now as the brilliant and timely satire of South Park. We all know the format: they take shots at pretty much everybody. Not just right, but especially left at times, as we’ve seen with the new season addressing what many scholarly articles have termed “PC culture.”
It’s hard for a 19-year old show to stay relevant. The Simpsons tried and failed after a certain point, which is arguably TV’s greatest comedy. But, then again, it lost it’s stride, following the Blade Runner philosophy that the brightest star burns for half as long. South Park, at its best, may not have burned as brightly as The Simpsons, but its collective flickers over the course of its running have made it more consistent. I couldn’t believe how hard I was laughing at the Season 19 premiere. And then I realized the most important thing: I was laughing now just as hard as I would have been eight years ago. Why? Because South Park continues to face us with timely, cultural narratives that offer witty, biting satire of almost every social construction we’ve made. Do I identify as liberal: yes. Do I like the overtly PC atmosphere pervading our post-secondary institutions: hell to the naw.
There’s something inherently relatable about four elementary school kids, small but not so innocent, observing a crazy chaotic world instrumented by crazy, chaotic grown-ups. In a sense we all feel that way at times: like the kids at school looking up and wondering just what the hell is going on around us. Kyle, Cartman, Stan, and Kenny are the first people to ask “what the fuck?” while other gullible kids (and adults) simply go with the flow, or try to cause it in many cases.
For 19 years we’ve seen almost every joke, from Tom Cruise to Kanye West to Saddam Hussein to Justin Beiber to Mel Gibson to Scientology to immigration to homelessness to cultural jabs and crosses, and now finally in the new season, gentrification. If you were born in the 90s, the show almost seemed to follow you as you grew up, taking each big, cultural moment as it happened and giving it a ruthless beat down. Kids in my college classes used to say “you remember the South Park episode where they made fun of…?” I remember when shows like Family Guy were really popular in 6th/7th grade, in spite of the obvious fact that most of the jokes were over our heads. Family Guy had more of a classic parody style: you had to be really familiar with movies and TV, especially older television. It’s a show of endless references. South Park, in contrast, isn’t really a cultural reference: it’s a cultural satire.
In the last episode of season 19 (at the time of this writing) we saw gentrification come to South Park in the form of SodaSopa, a new, organic restaurant center that also includes a spa, fitness center, up-scale hotels, and not to mention, Kenny’s house. It’s funny because, as a late millennial, I’ve seen this “new-business line” type of thinking. It’s the whole idea of coming into underserved, historical neighborhoods to revitalize and start a business, with not so much deference to the poorer people who actually live there and stand a good chance of being moneyed out, once the cost of living goes up. Basically, gentrification.
Everything in that show seems to measure up a particular trend and break it down, relentlessly. I find that the more it does this, the more I enjoy it. South Park has adapted itself over the years by moving beyond its original stereotype of fart jokes, toilet humor, and everything utterly revolting. It’s proven that it has a mind of its own, capable of satirizing almost anything, regardless of the issue. This has made it more enduring than, say, The Simpsons, a once-god of television that seems to have degraded itself into nothing more than a parody: a lifeline fighting to fluctuate so it doesn’t fall completely straight on the monitor.
Other people would disagree and say the show is past its heyday. They might point to that one moment where “South Park made fun of World of Warcraft,” or “Family Guy,” or a bunch of white hillbillies chanting “They took our jerbs” and say the show was never the same since that. But South Park remains right on point, no matter the season. I think it is because the protagonists are such young characters that the show keeps its relevance. Kyle, Cartman, Kenny, and Stan (and let’s not forget Butters, fellers) are kids forever and we can’t really imagine them growing up. We put ourselves in the heads of these children as we curiously contemplate (and often criticize) the world around us. It is easy to do that as children, because who better to call out bullshit than a nine or ten year old kid? We tend to imagine ourselves as passive actors affected by the bigger, bolder world around us.
So, what I’m getting at in my ramble here is that South Park is always facing “today’s” problems. And there’s something very charming about looking at them through the lens of four fourth grade boys, playfully safe in their own little world until something, very unexpectedly, goes down. And after 19 years the show is still rolling punches, week by week. It’s the perfect example of an American misadventure, only don’t always expect a pleasant surprise. Expect to be revolted, appalled, yet entertained and hysterical at the same time.