The season 19 premiere introduced a new character called PC Principal (Parker), who was committed to increasing tolerance and diversity in the notoriously non-diverse enclave of South Park, Colo. The masterstroke here was not casting PC Principal as a whiny, effete dweeb but as a boisterous, fratty college guy who whips up a mob of fellow PC bros to go after those who transgress against the norms of the politically correct. It’s a genius move, reflective of not only the fact that so many of these idiotic nontroversies come from college campuses but also the performance-based nature of so much outrage, the fact that it’s more signaling and tribalism than actual activism.
From there, Parker (who is credited with directing and writing each of the episodes this season) has embarked on a devastating critique of every aspect of modern grievance and outrage culture that annoys so many people. In order to prove that their town is properly progressive, the concerned citizens of South Park campaign for a Whole Foods — the ultimate way to signal to the world that they are enlightened. In a later episode, they call in the cops to crack down on homeless people who have gathered in front of the liberal haven — cops who refuse to come because the city’s residents gave them grief after shooting an unarmed Hispanic child. Those who abuse Yelp have themselves come in for abuse, as have Donald Trump and both critics and supporters of gentrification.
The vitriol really flowed forth in the fifth episode of this season, titled “Safe Space.” Weeks before University of Missouri students and professors brought shame upon themselves and their institution for demanding that public spaces be cordoned off from the media in order to maintain “safe spaces” for the precious snowflakes on campus, “South Park” lampooned the idea that everyone should be free from judgment. The episode culminated in a speech from another new character — the mustache-twirling Reality (Parker) — lecturing a group of celebrities about their desire to wall themselves off from criticism.
“What’s the matter with you people?” Reality asks at a benefit for “Shameless America.” “You’re sad that people are mean? Well 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. NO. You want to put all your s— up on the Internet and have every single person say ‘hooray’ for you. F— you. You’re all p—-s.”
As brilliant as this season has been, I do wonder if it might be so of the moment that it won’t age particularly well. (See, for instance, “PCU,” the seminal Jeremy Piven comedy concerned with ultimate Frisbee, hacky sack, hairy feminists, and blue-blazered, uber-WASP frat boys.) With touchstones so tied to this particular time and arguments over services (like Twitter and Yelp) that might not even exist in a decade and controversies that might prove ephemeral, it’s entirely possible that viewers will look back on this and not quite grok all the jokes — something we don’t really have to worry about with, say, the golden age of “The Simpsons.”
The show used to be a bit more general in its critiques. Consider that the now-ubiquitous Underpants Gnome Theory of business, explicated way back in the show’s second season, has become a staple joke of the political and business worlds; if you’ve ever seen a “Step One: [Something Dumb], Step Two: ????, Step Three: Profit/Win!” joke, you can thank Parker and Stone. The joke, which comes in an episode about Starbucks replacing local coffee shops, works because of its universality, its essential rootlessness; I’m not sure a gag about a Canadian version of Donald Trump being sodomized to death has the same lasting power.
The time capsule approach has its charms, though. It’s one the show has utilized more frequently since 9/11, mixing a unique brand of skepticism about American interventions abroad and disgust for hypocrisy at home into a brew that will serve as a fascinating and useful historical document for historians looking into American culture after the Twin Towers fell.
Just two months after the terrorist attacks, “South Park” aired an episode that was deeply critical of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, more or less casting the attacks as a “chickens come home to roost” moment while also mocking those who were incapacitated by the constant barrage of news from cable outlets. Though skeptical of the war on terror, Parker and Stone were also on the front lines of the Islamic war against freedom of expression, airing a series of episodes that have lambasted those who would sacrifice freedom for safety — including executives at their own network.
Terrorism, global warming, trans issues, efforts to ban Uber, steroids in sports, Scientology, gentrification, the proliferation of big box stores at the expense of mom and pop shops, dumb outrage culture — “South Park” sometimes feels like a road map to cultural fights big and small of the past 14 years. There’s nothing else quite like it on TV.