David L. Garcia
“South Park” is such an unshakeable cornerstone of television comedy that giving it a critical review can seem a little beside the point. What critique can be made about a show in the middle of its 19th season? The crass cartoon is nearly old enough to drink, and the quality hasn’t dipped; every recent season has produced some spectacular episodes, perfect 22-minute nuggets of scathing social and political satire. Last year’s “The Cissy” was practically awe-inspiring, tackling transgender rights and gender identity issues with legitimate tenderness (of course, this being “South Park,” we are also given a cross-dressing Lorde parody and a scene where Cartman acts as a dominatrix towards a school toilet).
But the current season of “South Park” has been much more than good: it is nothing short of miraculous. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made this season sharp and hilarious by doing something that seemed impossible: having South Park go PC.
For nearly two decades, the characters of South Park, Colorado have played the role of the uninformed, easily swayed everymen. The city acted as a metaphor for America, where the ignorant majority (usually the adults) frequently overruled common sense (frequently explained by children). This was city where the men gave themselves cancer to get medical marijuana cards, where a fourth grader pretended to have Tourette’s so he can curse whenever he wants, and where families packed up and headed to California, “Grapes of Wrath”-style, after their Wi-Fi went down. It was a town of lovable idiots, who viewed current events with a distinct lack of political correctness.
In Season 19, the tables are dramatically turned. The town of South Park undergoes a shocking transition, deciding to embrace the PC-worldview that they had been oblivious to. Lead by a new school principal, a frat-bro morality enforcer named PC-Principal, the townspeople begins to spearhead changes that (they think) will make South Park a better place: they haze Kyle after he admits that Caitlin Jenner isn’t his personal hero; they petition Whole Foods to build a store in a newly developed “mixed income” arts-and-culture district called Sodosopa; they randomly congratulate and hand $100 bills to Tweek and Craig after a rumor starts that they are gay lovers. In short, the town’s campaign for political correctness results in more of the same hilariously over-the-top ignorance.
Parker and Stone must have realized that a world that enforces political correctness, as progressive as it might be, inevitably imposes limits on the free speech at the heart of their inherently vulgar show. It’s telling to notice that Stan and Kyle, two friends based on Parker and Stone, are frequently shamed in this season, despite the fact that they have been dispensing common sense morality for the show’s entire run. In previous seasons, Kyle would never have recanted his dislike for Caitlin Jenner; in the season premiere, “Stunning and Brave,” Kyle half-heartedly expresses his appreciation of Jenner and seems to realize, as Parker and Stone must have, that most calls for common sense will never really be understood. This is comedy at its most impactful, where hard truths are being slammed down along with the jokes.
This season also benefits from having a continuous structure, where each episode builds on the one previous. An episode about gentrification results in the building of a Whole Foods, which draws a bunch of new restaurants to the area. This sets up the next episode, where everyone in South Park becomes obsessed with Yelp reviewing. The flow isn’t really essential, but it’s impressive that Parker and Stone have undertaken such a difficult task, especially considering that they produce the show under immensely tight deadlines, to keep the jokes as relevant as possible.
And don’t worry: those jokes are hysterical. Cartman becomes the leader of a horde of self-obsessed Yelpers, Randy gets blackout drunk pledging to a PC fraternity, and we learn that millions of undocumented Canadian immigrants are coming to the US to escape a golden-haired president they elected thinking his campaign was a joke. There’s also plenty hilarious material here to inflame the righteous, despite the PC theme of the season: a restaurant mascot is torn apart in a parody of an ISIS beheading video, Mr. Kim uses cheerleading to inspire his Chinese restaurant’s underpaid child labor force, and the town decides to create “safe spaces” by hiring starving third-world children to filter negative Twitter comments. The laughs don’t always come easily.
PC culture is not the biggest threat in the world today, and I think Parker and Stone realize that. But I commend them for pointing out the flaws in being politically correct. It speaks to their commitment to comedy that no one, not even those fighting on the right side of history, are safe from satirical critique. With this season half over, try to catch up soon; “South Park” has never been better.
Photo courtesy of Comedy Central