How ‘South Park’ Perfectly Captures Our Era of Outrage
09 December 2015
Even if “South Park” were a person, and was old enough to vote, it probably wouldn’t. Since 1997, that same scabrous cartoon has been a one-stop shop for anti-partisan satire and blasphemy on Comedy Central.
A few comedies nowadays can manage staying first-rate for that long, not even Homer. 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 early in the current season. We see a recurring character saying: “It’s like I’m a relic,” a. “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's their way to show the audience their suggestion that the cartoon the had now started punching down in its later years.
However by telling a more ambitious, serialized story and by asserting that it takes an outrageous comedy to capture an era of outrage, “South Park” has gone and revitalized itself this fall.
This season, which airs its finale on Wednesday, is built around an extended satire of political correctness. South Park, Colo., is now taken over by a new school principal, who is 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.”
Another target of the season is 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.” That happens with the help of a longtime character, Mr. Garrison, who 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. Still, just like an American Charlie Hebdo, “South Park” has never cared much about political fine points so much as comedy that deflates zealots and defends the offensive.
Before “South Park” used to be very anti-continuity, even its episodes are often written days before airing. Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone have been able to make more complex arguments this season, by shifting toward serial stories. For example: acknowledging, for instance, that sometimes outrage culture has a basis in actual outrages. There is even one for police brutality , which 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.
Initially, past “South Park” satires looked only at single issues, but this season is sketching something like a grand 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 realise that many of them can’t afford to join the few, the smug, the artisanal, even know before that they were truly delighted. 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).
All in all “South Park” worldview, drives people to a self-pitying narcissism that extends to politics, yet 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.”
Later we see the citizens moving to action, by taking Reality to the town square and hang him.
Don't get it wrong, this thematic is not exactly subtle, nor is the show’s argument entirely focused on. 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.)
Also 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, with Cartman telling 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.” However its project and theirs are the same in a way. The goal is to deal with tensions by prescribing more conversation, even if it’s uncomfortable, not less.