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Let me first stipulate the following to be true, as I see it:
- South Park is one of the funniest television shows ever created and arguably among the most culturally-significant.
- Trey Parker and Matt Stone are two of the most gifted comedy writers, in any medium, of their generation.
- Both the series and its creators would deservedly retain their pop-immortality even if neither entity were to produce a single work of further note (however unlikely that appears to be.)
- Anyone over the age of 30 writing on the subject of popular-culture in 2015 who declares something else to be “old” is all but certainly asking for at least 1/3rd of whatever they get.
That having been said…
If Trey Parker, Matt Stone and South Park have always better than almost anyone in the business at exactly one thing, it’s preventative self-defense: Few other creators are as consistently reflective enough to anticipate almost any criticism of their work and bake sly inoculative retorts directly into the batter. This is, after all, the same series and creative team that structured their (thus far) sole theatrical outing, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, around the conceit of a busybody helicopter mom unwittingly unleashing an Apocalyptic war with Canada over fury at her son being admitted to an R-rated animated film.
So it was both unsurprising but also a bit worrying when the series’ fifteenth season’s penultimate episode arrived with the title “You’re Getting Old,” telling a story that felt as nakedly autobiographical as any before (which is saying something!) in which Stan Marsh (Parker) finds himself in a state of agonizing depression after being struck with an age-related malady leaving him unable to enjoy any of the hobbies, music, movies or even personal-relationships that once brought him joy. Despite poor Stan’s illness being framed in terms of perceiving a world literally morphing into feces (this is still South Park, after all) it was as sad a half hour of TV as ever produced; and that was before Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide” queued up over a pointedly punchline-free finale. To twist the knife further, the storyline’s subsequent concluding episode (“Ass Burgers”) teased the possibility of positive personal-growth from the experience… only to rip it away with a comedically-slapdash hard-reset to zero and a stinging final jab, implying that Stan’s continued “in character” participation in classic-style Park shenanigans with his friends from there on out was to be possible only through drinking himself into a stupor first.
Dark, sure, but also slyly utilitarian: Let no one dare say that any subsequent season carry a sense of creative fatigue or the appearance of going through the motions, lest Parker and Stone (or their legions of fans/defenders) banish you to their Island of Human Punchlines with Barbara Streisand and the Church of Scientology; no doubt cackling all the way. “Ha ha! No duh, genius! We told you that way back in Season 15!”
So it was with an ever-optimistic sense of “maybe they’re building to something I just don’t see yet” that I watched as the show’s most recent season (its nineteenth, i.e. four years out from “You’re Getting Old,” for those keeping track) play out with something feeling consistently… “off.” To be sure, the laughs were still to be had and the craftsmanship was as impeccable (and consistently-evolving) as ever. But there was a sense permeating the air that something in the chemistry – or perhaps the ingredients? – had changed; and as the season-long storyline charged toward its climax (South Park is the latest series to embrace the binge-friendly format of longform episode-to-episode continuity) and a consistent tone, theme and choice of targets began to coalesce in hindsight I could finally give it a name:
Old. The characters, the creators (speaking through them,) the philosophy, the voice of the show suddenly sounds so very, very old.
South Park hit the popular culture in 1997 with the kind of out-of-nowhere impact that nothing can really have anymore, at the last moment in history when “everyone” (at least as defined in terms of Western TV viewership) would find out about a new piece of media all at once. Whereas today even the most obscure talent can accrue a legion of followers via the internet before finally spilling into the world’s livingroom, what became South Park was only ever a crudely-animated video Christmas card from a pair of malcontent Midwestern comedians being passed around Hollywood by this or that insider (early fans included George Clooney) until Comedy Central – seeking to radically rebrand itself away from a clearing-house for standup-boom overflow and quirky fare like the (then) recently-departed Mystery Science Theater 3000 – took a huge chance on a series order. And while history will undoubtedly remember Jon Stewart’s retooled Daily Show (arriving two years later in ’99) as the network’s most lasting and important contribution to the culture, for a minute there Parker and Stone’s foul-mouthed quartet were the face of new wave in TV comedy.
The show seemed to stumble into greater relevance somewhat by accident. It wasn’t the first animated series to work “blue” or to come under fire for it (even The Simpsons, which feels about as “edgy” as Spongebob at this point, earned protests back in the day) but it felt like the first one to truly lean-into the criticism and thrive as a result. Parker and Stone may have begun with a punk rock mandate to enrage as many as possible, up to an including their own fans (early-adopters scratched their heads at an episode that dropped the scatology for an extended Godzilla/Ultraman pastiche and shocked the creators themselves by not finding it hilarious to have been denied an answer to the question of Eric Cartman’s parentage) but when push came to shove it turned out the duo had a lot to say about politics, media and the culture.
Deviously, since they often said so in the voices of precocious cartoon children, their words were invested with a cutting sense of immediacy: No matter what Parker and Stone had to say, it sounded fresh, new and doubly-transgressive so long as it was coming out of Stan, Kyle, Cartman or Kenny – a nifty trick of the medium not deployed so effectively since Charlie Brown singlehandedly collapsed the aluminum Christmas tree industry, and one that South Park used so cannily for so long that having done so is yet another mark in the series’ favor and further testament to its creators’ skill. It also helped that their other skills included maintaining a Herculean turnaround-time in production and a willingness to remain truly engaged with the culture they were commenting on; debuting episodes about “World of Warcraft,” Game of Thrones, Pokemon and even the election of Barack Obama at their discussion-worthy high points.
But all things eventually recede, and in retrospect it seems almost appropriate that I’d get the sense that mortality had finally come to South Park at the tail end of the same year that also saw Comedy Central’s (by now) more iconic fixtures, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, bring down the curtain on tenures that defined an entire generation of American political comedy if not politics, period. The difference, though, was that Stewart’s Daily Show and The Colbert Report came to an end by their creators own hands – and in acknowledgment that they’d said their piece and it was time to move on. By contrast, what was ultimately so disquieting about this season of South Park was how uncharacteristically non-introspective it seemed to be. Not only did Parker and Stone’s avatars, so much more than ever before, sound like angry old(er) men shouting back at a world passing by; they seemed for the first time ever to be striding ahead completely unaware of it.
For those who didn’t watch (or only peeked,) the season’s episodes were structured around an elaborate conspiracy storyline wherein newly-sentient internet advertisements attempted a They Live-style covert takeover of society, starting in South Park, Colorado. The tendrils of the conspiracy manifested in a variety of seemingly-unrelated ways, from construction of a Whole Foods to the gentrification of the town to the popularity of a subgenre of Japanese fan-art depicting same-sex relationships among male cartoon characters (because this is, again, still South Park;) but by far the most prominent was the arrival of a new major antagonist in the form of “PC Principal,” a school administrator who approached a zealous commitment to a laundry list of social-justice causes with an incongruous bullying macho bravado befitting his stereotypical frat-rat character design. In what will probably go down as the season’s signature episode, PC Principal’s attempt to establish criticism-free “safe spaces” for everyone in town gave rise to a personification of “Reality” in the form of a sneering silent movie villain, who berated the townspeople (but, really, the audience) not confronting the supposed facts of daily life – or, in his words, “Well, I’m sorry the world isn’t one big liberal arts campus!”
PC Principal, of course, made an apparent face-turn to the side of good in the season’s strange, rushed-feeling finale. And some of the season’s other attention-grabbing topical bugbears (police shootings, Donald Trump, Caitlyn Jenner) likely would’ve been targets for South Park even without some sort of unifying season-long theme, with Parker and Stone having always taken particular glee in tweaking the nose of topical progressive causes, particularly those embraced by their reflexively-liberal Hollywood peers. But the inclusion of yaoi (male/male romance) fan-art as the main plot-point of an entire episode (“Tweak x Craig”) helped to crystallize, for me, a theme within the theme: namely that this wasn’t simply South Park returning to Team America: World Police’s well of sneering-back at the smug side of pop-progressivism, but more pointedly two of the leading voices of Generation X comedy taking in the increasing cultural-prominence of Millennials and finally, in exasperation and with an almost suspicious lack of self-awareness, demanding to know, well… “What’s the matter with kids today!?”
Yaoi, of course, is an established art and literary subgenre with a long and complex history in its native Japan, but it’s popularity has come to the West mainly in the form of online fan-art and exploded in recent years on the social-media platform Tumblr, a fact which feels like the key to the whole season if you’re as familiar with internet-activism culture as Parker and Stone clearly are (the platform has played a part in prior episodes of the series.) Moreso than Facebook and Twitter, Tumblr’s reputation has become that of a rallying-point for socially-conscious Millennials, particularly around social-justice subjects like race and gender politics (fairly or not, it’s often framed as the left-of-center opposite to older libertarian/right-leaning platforms like Reddit and 4chan) which Tumblr users often promote via a mutually-supportive meme-sharing culture that thrives particularly at the intersection of politics and pop-culture where South Park once reigned supreme: In 2005, it was amazing that Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny could turn every snarky college kid into an anti-Scientology whistleblower in a single broadcast, but fifteen years later it’s Tumblr that can mass-anoint the latest Disney Princess an LGBT icon halfway through the first trailer – with both phenomena sharing only the occasionally-overzealous righteousness of their advocates.
In online-adjacent spaces, Tumblr often stands in as a rhetorical punching-bag for everyone from outright hate-groups (think the “GamerGate” harassment campaign, or the various arms of Breitbart and Stormfront) to more reasoned blowback from aging Boomer and Gen-X comedians like Jerry Seinfeld (or Chris Rock) bracing at criticism about offensive jokes from “politically correct” Millennial audiences. PC Principal, of course, is a blunt personification of the former, a literal “PC bully” inflicting aggressive punishment on anyone who dares speak or think out of step with an ever-changing ideological purity; what innumerable hand-wringing thinkpieces have dubbed the “outrage culture.”
All of this, especially the spinning of inbound-criticism into a caricatured villain, is the stuff classic South Park has previously been made of, but this time there’s a palpable lack of actual connective tissue between the disparate elements (a late-arriving moral about politically-correct speech being “gentrification, but for language” lands with a bizarre, impotent thud in the finale) which is, quite frankly, shocking coming from creators who once turned their rivalry with Family Guy into an occasion to examine freedom of expression vis-a-vi religious parody in the post-9/11 era. Parker and Stone are hardly bulletproof and Park has stumbled plenty before, but the spectacle of a series that rewrote the book on staying evergreen and engaged with the culture it satirized seemingly devoting an entire season to scoffing at the concerns of the rising generation without any accompanying self-appraisal was utterly puzzling – particularly since the self-defense was still there, with PC Principal’s first scene being a monologue about how the town’s (read: the series’) behavior was “stuck in a time warp.”
That’s not to say that South Park (or any other series) has some kind of obligation to keep current with the generational or political winds. Indeed, the show (and its creators’) eagerness to prod the left and right with equal vigor has always been part of its signature. It’s easy to forget, but when the series landed right in the midst of the Clinton 90s (the decade where “political correctness” first became a mainstream phrase) seeing a comedy show with actual youth-culture street cred fire volleys at environmentalism, the “tolerance” push and other progressive-perennials Gen-Xers had been receiving as default-positives from Sesame Street right up through Friends was part of what made it feel exciting and different. It’s also what won the series a (then) unlikely following on the right-wing, with columnist Andrew Sullivan dubbing circa-2001 young conservatives “South Park Republicans” to the chagrin of the creators; who steadfastly insisted that they (and the show) had staked their claim squarely in the middle: on the South Park moral spectrum, the military/industrial right and the do-gooder left are equal antagonists of the “little guy” who was likely doing just fine until they started bothering him.
Of all the personal fixations and grievances that Parker and Stone contributed to South Park’s foundational DNA, that particular outlook is perhaps the most quintessentially demonstrative of their upbringing in the American Midwest, a region given to seeing itself as caught between the battles of clashing cultural-behemoths; be it the Republican South versus Democrat coasts or merely New York verus Los Angeles as economic power-centers. But it’s also a universally-comforting notion, since almost everyone would like to think of themselves as the normal, sensible person beset on all fronts by absurd extremes – and who, after all, doesn’t prefer stability (their own, at least) to chaos and upheaval? When a protest-march shuts down a city block, South Park’s first instinct is to look past the activists and their enemy to cast sympathy with the folks who didn’t ask to be involved but are now late for work all the same.
But the absolute middle is as much a fantasy as the existence of “pure” good or evil, and the problem with “leave me alone” as a philosophical ideal (whether for a cartoon show or a human life) is that you can’t resist upheaval without also upholding the status-quo. And in an era where “change” itself (changes in demographics, changes in society, changes in acceptable language, etc) is often at the forefront of our most divisive discussions, being reflexively anti-upheaval (regardless of the reason) is very much taking a side no matter how much one insists otherwise. This is tricky terrain for any work of satire where immediacy is part of the brand: It gets increasingly hard to be a rock star when you’re the one asking for the music to be turned down.
That’s precisely the predicament where Parker, Stone and South Park have now found themselves, in my estimation: It took a while, but they seem to have crossed the point where their dual central-sympathies – their own self-righteousness and the righteousness of put-upon “little guys” – are no longer one and the same. South Park is The Establishment at this point, and the little guys in perpetual danger of being trampled increasingly look less like the middle-age Generation-Xers who created it and more like the aggrieved rainbow of dissidents making noise on the likes of Tumblr (or out in the streets, for that matter.) And Season 19, by the end, felt like nothing so much as the creators gnashing their teeth at ascendant Millennials moments after the realization of this finally smacked them in the face. “Hmph! You kids today with your hula-hoops and your social justice!”
On the one hand, there’s no rule that says edgy humor is the sole province of the under-30 set: witness the aforementioned Jon Stewart’s career-defining metamorphosis from snarky MTV fixture to the sarcastic gray-haired political conscience of a nation for proof of that. But while it’s entirely possible for comedy (and comedians) to survive or even thrive as in the form of an ever-aging grownup grousing about “kids today,” it’s unclear exactly how South Park would do so. Unlike The Simpsons, which gradually pivoted focus from Bart to Homer in transition from trendy-troublemaker to cultural-landmark stature, Park feels permanently wed to the Main Four as central figures. Family Guy navigated similar longevity-pains (your mileage may vary on their success at such) by allowing creator Seth McFarlane’s self-insert character, Brian, to shift organically from being the moral-center of the series to a narcissistic, out-of-touch grump that nobody likes; but “You’re Getting Old” already took Park’s version of that kind of character-shift to the logical extreme and back again.
On the other hand, not every act stays potent in advancing age. Once upon a time, Dennis Miller was political comedy’s pre-Jon Stewart icon; a human-thesaurus motormouth whose snarky takes on current-events made his HBO series a kind of proto-Daily Show. But the march of time (and a self-admitted life-altering reaction to 9/11) took his comedy in an angrier, more conservative direction; and to the degree that he’s known at all today it’s for a right-wing talk radio show (recently concluded) and a recurring guest spot on The O’Reilly Factor – a fate far-removed from what the fans who once regarded him as the “thinking man’s” stand-up hero. Granted, it’s unlikely anything so extreme awaits the maestros of South Park (for one thing, they’ve already established a second mega-successful career as blockbuster Broadway musical creators,) but the gap between Miller’s full-throated embrace of Bush-era neoconservativism to the bafflement of his Gen-X fanbase and Parker and Stone’s grumpy cynicism about “Tumblr Generation”-embraced causes like transgender issues feels less and less vast every day; and the spectre of Miller’s fall hangs over every comic who wakes up one day to find themselves as the Old Man when just yesterday they were still the children he’s about to order off the lawn.
The final irony, though, and the one which makes South Park’s Season 19 pivot feel all the more askew, is the particularities of just what about Millennial social-consciousness, Tumblr-activism, “outrage culture” and the rest seems to bother Parker and Stone so much. The grievances bubbling under the season’s narrative-surface are familiar to anyone whose endured a wave or three of Internet blowback against “SJWs” (“Social Justice Warriors”): They’re too angry. They’re never satisfied. They “shoot” first and ask questions later. They demand ideological purity. They don’t respect procedure, or tenure, or institutions. They rant and rave and rage, treat pop-culture alternately like a toybox or target-range and won’t take “that’s not how it’s done” for an answer. They, effectively, act like indignant, infuriated adolescents too charged up at discovering a new power to shape the cultural conversation to bother wielding it any measure of responsibility.
That reminds me of somebody I used to know. Somebody who reacted to worries about how to tell jokes post-9/11 with “Watch us.” Somebody who wasn’t simply unafraid but eager to “call out” everyone from Michael Moore to Christopher Reeve to Tom Cruise. Somebody who’s response to professional-betrayal by a colleague was an eye-poppingly combative “Fine, go – but we’re gonna turn your character into a brainwashed child-molester and then kill him.” Somebody who saw the value in being loud, angry and tactless where it concerned getting one’s point across, and who didn’t merely invite the condescension and hand-wringing of the older generation but actually reveled in it. Sound like anyone you used to know, Stan? Or you, Kyle?
There’s no such thing, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always been all too eager to remind us, as an unacceptable target when it comes to satire. But choice and timing of targets can reveal a lot about those picking them, and in turning the full measure of its guns (an entire season of television) on perceived cornerstones of Millennial culture and, implicitly, on Millennials as a generational-class themselves, South Park would appear to have completed its transition from rebellious “angry kid” firebrand raging at every hint of authority to established, dug-in angry old man shaking a fist at the generation rising up behind it. And while South Park has endured and made fools of its critics before, it’s hard to imagine how you pull out of this particular trajectory when your “brand” has always been blunt-honesty at all costs.