How ‘South Park’ Perfectly Captures Our Era of Outrage
by James Poniewozik
If “South Park” were a person, it would be old enough to vote, though it probably wouldn’t. That scabrous cartoon has been a one-stop shop for anti-partisan satire and blasphemy on Comedy Central since 1997.
Few comedies can stay first-rate for that long. (Sorry, Homer.) Early in the current season, the show’s 19th, the creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to wonder how well the show’s offend-at-all-costs ethos has aged. “It’s like I’m a relic,” a recurring character says. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve outstayed my welcome.”
The character in question is a white restaurant owner who believes he is Chinese and speaks in a grossly stereotyped Asian accent. Maybe, that meta-lament seemed to suggest, the show had started punching down in its later years.Yet this fall “South Park” has gone and revitalized itself, by telling a more ambitious, serialized story and by asserting that it takes an outrageous comedy to capture an era of outrage.
This season, which airs its finale on Wednesday, is built around an extended satire of political correctness. South Park, Colo., is taken over by a new school principal — named, aptly, P. C. Principal — and his crew of like-minded, jacked-up frat bros, who believe that being p.c. “means you love nothing more than beer, working out and the feeling that you get when you rhetorically defend a marginalized community from systems of oppression!” They meet microaggression with macroaggression, bullying kids and adults who, say, refer to the transgender reality star Caitlyn Jenner as anything less than “stunning and brave.”
But the season also targeted the rise of Donald J. Trump, a phenomenon who has thrived on a resentment of things p.c., just this week crowing that his plan to ban Muslims from the United States was “probably not politically correct.” A longtime character, Mr. Garrison, begins a White House bid on a familiar-sounding platform of xenophobia against Canadians (recurring boogeymen of “South Park,” going back to the “Blame Canada” number from the 1999 movie musical). Canada, in turn, has elected its own Trump-like figure, with disastrous results. “We thought it was funny,” one Canadian laments. “Nobody really thought he’d ever be president!”
In reality, Canada has a prime minister. But “South Park” has never cared much about political fine points so much as comedy that deflates zealots and defends the offensive, like an American Charlie Hebdo. It was ahead of the curve in asserting a right to depict the Prophet Muhammad, who appeared in a 2001 episode (though Comedy Central squelched later attempts).
Now, it was as if our culture had been shining an Eric Cartman-shaped Bat-signal and “South Park” answered. You could see the news from college campuses — safe spaces, trigger warnings — and conclude that America was more radically leftist than ever. You could read a dispatch from the Republican primary — border walls, refugee panic — and conclude that it was more reactionary than ever. The country is deeply polarized, and between two poles is precisely where the quasi-libertarian “South Park” most likes to swing.
“South Park” used to be so anti-continuity — its episodes are often written days before airing — that the show would kill the same character, Kenny McCormick, every week. By shifting toward serial stories, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone have been able to make more complex arguments this season: acknowledging, for instance, that sometimes outrage culture has a basis in actual outrages. An episode on police brutality posits both that South Park’s cops are needed to keep the peace and that many of them joined the force to have carte blanche to beat up minorities.
And where past “South Park” satires once looked at single issues, this season is sketching something like a grand — if messy — unified theory of anger, inequality and disillusionment in 2015 America.
Even as the p.c. wars rage, the town of South Park is being gentrified: It’s attracted a Whole Foods and built Sodosopa (South of Downtown South Park), an enclave of hipster eateries and condos built literally around the house of the dirt-poor McCormick family. The townspeople are delighted, until they realize many of them can’t afford to join the few, the smug, the artisanal. Under the town’s chichi new facade is a familiar slurry of resentment (of the privileged, of immigrants, of elites) and fear (of terrorism, of crime, of economically falling).
And all that, in the “South Park” worldview, drives people to a self-pitying narcissism that extends to politics but also goes beyond it. In the season’s darkest episode, “Safe Space,” the townspeople assign a single child to filter every negative comment from their social media, to protect their self-esteem from all manner of “-shaming.”
After the boy nearly dies from the strain of filtering the entire Internet’s hate, an allegorical figure named Reality — wearing a silent-movie villain’s cape and mustache — shows up to scold South Parkers with a lecture that sums up this season’s Swiftian brimstone morality: “I’m sorry the world isn’t one big liberal-arts college campus! We eat too much. We take our spoiled lives for granted. Feel a little bad about it sometimes.”
Affected by his words, the citizens are moved to action: They take Reality to the town square and hang him.
It’s not exactly subtle, nor is the show’s argument entirely focused; the season-ending arc has involved a tangent about deceptive online advertising. (The finale may be more timely. Only a week after the terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., the episode promises a story on how “the citizens of South Park feel safer armed”; a teaser video has Cartman getting in an armed standoff with his mother at bedtime.)
And by making P. C. Principal and friends white dudes, the show sidesteps the fact that “politically correct” is often a label lobbed by white dudes at women and minorities who’ve faced actual prejudice. Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone anticipate this criticism too, having Cartman tell his schoolmate Kyle, with atypical self-awareness: “We’re two privileged straight white boys who have their laughs about things we never had to deal with.”
This product of two white guys does have a different vantage point from many of today’s best comedies dealing with identity issues, from “black-ish” to “Master of None.” But in a way, its project and theirs are the same: to deal with tensions by prescribing more conversation, even if it’s uncomfortable, not less.