The premiere of South Park‘s twentieth season tonight on Comedy Central offers a nice opportunity to reflect on how both the show and we the viewers have changed since the wild and woolly mid-’90s. To put it bluntly, we have both gotten old.
Getting older is a theme that has surfaced quite a few times on South Park, most notably in the standout 2011 episode, “You’re Getting Old,” where fourth grader Stan Marsh stops liking pop music and his parents are separated. In the show’s 19th season, newly released on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Video, it is clear that South Park‘s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have realized that their often-tasteless, always-satirical, widely beloved, and multi-Emmy-winning animated show needs to grow up and change with the times. But rather than see it as a burden, Parker and Stone take on the changing landscape as a creative challenge and a way to keep their show fresh.
Where season 18 had a vague recurring theme about the impact of new technology on the fine folks of South Park, Colorado, season 19 marks the first time the show has attempted to build a strict continuity, serializing its ten-episode run. Season 19 doesn’t exactly have one big story to tell, but rather than reset the world at the end of each story, the writers build on previous episodes to develop an often brilliant critique of the trappings of 21st Century political correctness.
The new wave of PC culture is natural fodder for a show like South Park, whose bread and butter is the skewering of cultural sacred cows. But while Parker and Stone are incisive about the hypocrisies of folks who misuse political correctness as a tool to create a culture of outrage and self-satisfaction, South Park‘s writers are essentially sympathetic to the core idea behind why the outrage occurs: the need to treat people better.
The season starts with the introduction of a brilliant new character which stems from the idea that colleges are now ground zero for political correctness: PC Principal. Combining the fashion sense, vocal cadence, and aggro posturing of a frat bro with a keen sensitivity to social justice issues, PC Principal smartly plays on two different college stereotypes and initially seems like a prime one-off character for show. But then he doesn’t go away.
PC Principal takes over as the head of South Park Elementary, after Principal Victoria is fired for making a Bill Cosby rape joke, and soon the whole town begins to change. Inept teacher Mr. Garrison becomes a Trump-like candidate for president, which inspires Stan’s dad Randy Marsh to lure Whole Foods into South Park to prove that the whole town isn’t full of backwards rednecks. Different rundown neighborhoods in South Park compete to gentrify faster and attract a new clientele of would-be enlightened PC people. The town gets addicted to Yelp, they get offended by body shaming, and, after an accidental shooting, they decide they no longer need city police.
The show takes on most of the things you have been subjected to in your social media feed in the past 12 months, and it feels good to have someone thoughtfully poke fun at these phenomena. In a nod to the ongoing epidemic of mass shootings and the attendant gun control debate, the final episode of the season has everyone in town fearfully loading up on guns, which, in a brilliant twist, solves everyone’s problems. Everyone is better able to communicate and resolve their problems when they have firearms in their hands.
Although South Park has churned out plenty of classic episodes during its long, long run, it’s hard to pinpoint a season as consistently funny and thoughtfully written as number 19. Here’s hoping the big 2-0 continues the trend.
Blu-ray Bonus features: Season Commentary (26 minutes) with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Deleted Scenes, #SocialCommentary (fake live-tweeting), and a trailer for “The Fractured But Whole” video game.
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.