A staggering 19 seasons in and South Park is as poignant, sharp and funny as it’s ever been. It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing for the show. Heavy-handedness bogged it down for a few seasons and somewhere along the line, episodes began revolving around single jokes. But it’s back in top form now, tackling political correctness and 2015 America with the appropriate amount of both cynicism and affection.
Take the latest episode, “Tweek x Craig.” Tweek, the coffee proprietor’s high-strung son, and Craig, one of the town’s biggest troublemakers, are rumored to be gay lovers when the Asian girls at school begin drawing anime-like romantic pictures of the two in the yaoi style. It’s based on an actual online trend that began after the kids fought in season 3’s classic “Tweek vs. Craig.”
In previous seasons, an affair like this would likely have gotten Tweek and Craig ostracized, most likely with a lesson being learned in the end. But this is 2015, South Park is PC, and their lessons – they think – have already been learned. So the townspeople and their classmates instead become entranced and endeared to what they mistakenly believe is a budding romance.
Watching South Park grow up like this is interesting. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have never belittled groups like homosexuals, but they’ve given often controversial portrayals. South Park’s most prominent homosexual, Mr. Garrison, went through myriad sexual identity crises and periods of self-loathing, but that makes him one of the show’s most developed characters. Big Gay Al and Mr. Slave are crude stereotypes, yet they’re never depicted as inferior to the townspeople – usually quite the opposite.
With episodes focusing on transgender issues, homosexuality, cyberbullying and political correctness, Parker and Stone aren’t exactly satirizing the growing acceptance of marginalized communities. They’re criticizing it because it’s treated as bourgeois. The townspeople haven’t become more tolerant because it’s the right thing to do; they’re more tolerant because it’s the in thing to do. It’s a subtle distinction that’s often lost in an age of political correctness.
While the townspeople are lauding Caitlyn Jenner in the episode “Stunning and Brave,” Kyle points out that before the transition, Bruce Jenner wasn’t his favorite person in the world and he has no reason to think Caitlyn is any better of a person. This simple point – which actually humanizes Jenner far more than seeing her just as an applause line – is met with outrage from the town’s growing population of PC bros.
In “Safe Space,” Cartman – the show’s most monstrous character and one of television’s most sadistic villains – is shielded from online trolls who fat shame him. Butters is given the task of filtering through Cartman’s – and eventually, Steven Seagal’s and others’ – online feedback, giving them printed reports including only the positive comments. It helps everybody’s self-esteem, except Butters who is traumatized by the ordeal, at the obvious expense of a severe distortion of reality.
All this leads to the show’s most complex morality yet. While it’s undeniably better to evolve from being reactionary rednecks, the town’s new progressive attitude comes with an almost complete lack of understanding. In “Tweek x Craig,” Craig’s father learns to accept his son’s homosexuality when he realizes that it’s neither a choice nor genetic – it’s determined by the Japanese. If they draw you in a gay pose, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Parker and Stone sum up the danger this kind of acceptance can have in the episode “The City Part of Town,” where Kenny’s house – formerly the only house in town on the bad side of the tracks – is suddenly boxed in by the upscale food, shopping and housing district, SodaSopa. Hopefully a future episode will see the McCormicks priced out of their home to follow the gentrification storyline to its logical conclusion.
South Park has played with season-long arcs before, but never at this level. New character, PC Principal, is apparently sticking around. Shots of the town now prominently feature SodaSopa. Butters is seen conversing with his Canadian girlfriend, Caitlyn Jenner has made multiple appearances and Randy is fully committed to his new PC lifestyle. It’s been awhile since South Park has had this much to say.
Part of the reason it might be doing so well is this season’s unusual production schedule. South Park has always been unique in that episodes are conceived, written, voiced and animated the very same week they air. But this season, certain episodes are followed by one-week breaks. That break must help relieve some of the insanity of their demanding week-at-a-time schedule.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this season, it hasn’t exactly crystallized yet. Political correctness plays a very strange role in 2015 America. One point Parker and Stone are making is that open-minded people can still be pretentious assholes and confusion is not the same thing as bigotry. Of all the commentary it’s received in pop culture from comedians, liberals and conservatives, South Park’s stance is probably most worth paying attention to.