Why we're still watching South Park
The late 90’s were a memorable time in pop culture. Jerry Springer was at its ratings peak, Steve Austin was flipping the bird in the WWF and someone managed to turn screaming teens running around with a camera into a hit film with The Blair Witch Project. Not to mention peak Simpsons.
1997 saw the emergence of South Park. Crudely animated, and seemingly centred around toilet humour, the show became an unlikely hit. With mass ratings that practically put Comedy Central on the map, merchandise sales dominance only matched by Steve Austin and the WWF, and a buzz in the cultural zeitgeist for its controversy that incurred the wrath of parents and religious groups; and it’s even inspired both legal discussion with ‘the Chewbacca defence’ and economic/business analysis with the underpants Gnomes.
But now it’s 19 years since its debut, with the premier of its 20th season around the corner as I write this, and South Park doesn’t seem to have the influence it once had. Episodes from last years season garnered 1/3 of the average ratings of those of the earlier seasons. And apart from a few Facebook memes, South Park isn’t as widely discussed a piece of pop culture as it once was. This decline of interest can be seen as a part of the seemingly natural downward trajectory of primetime cartoons, with The Simpsons and Family Guy currently being shells of their former selves in terms of quality.
But, it is in regards to quality where South Park differs from these other shows. Beyond the crudeness and shock value, what gained the show such acclaim was its heart, sharp commentary, and smart humour; which it still has in abundance even in its later seasons. Arguably, the show’s satire has become more sophisticated as creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have matured; while still keeping the belly laughs. For pertinent examples of this, I’ll be looking at five episodes from the 2010’s that showcase the longevity of South Park’s quality by being as good as, or even better than those from the height of the series’ popularity.
‘Medicinal Fried Chicken’. (S14 E3) Air Date: 31.03.10
A fun episode from the first year of the new decade, ‘Medicinal Fried Chicken’ is a great example of the show’s use of immature humour tied in with pop culture and topical references at its best. The episode sees Cartman become the Tony Montana-esq kigpin of a KFC cartel after a ban on fast food restaurants. Plus there’s the bombastic sub-plot of Randy Marsh (who’s has quite possibly become the shows’ best character this decade) trying to give himself testicular cancer in order to get a subscription for medical marijuana; resulting in him having enormously swollen testicles which he rides like a space hopper. The gleeful Scarface references and Randy’s idiotic brilliance make this a memorable episode.
‘Ass Burgers’. (S15 E8) Air Date: 05.10.11
A follow on from the mid-season finale ‘You’re Getting Old’; which saw Stan sink into a depression and his parents separate, this was one of the boldest episodes the show had put on in a while. Aside from its stark portrayal angst-fuelled cynicism (while Stan seeing most things in the world around him as literal sh*t), the episode reflects the self-doubts of creators Parker and Stone. With the show in its 15th season, and with obvious comparisons being made with other cartoons past their prime, there were questions about the series’ status quo and what the future held. This was addressed through Stan’s struggle to adapt to the changes in his life, ending with a clever resolution that mirrors the conclusion that Parker and Stone came to. This is an example of the more mature direction South Park can go these days as its creators grow up with the show.
‘World War Zimmerman’. (S17 E3) Air Date: 09.10.13
In my personal opinion; the best episode of the 2010s, and arguably the most shocking in a long time. Revolving around Cartman’s irrational fear of a black uprising in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, and all the chaos that ensues in his attempts to stop ‘the outbreak’ from spreading. ‘World War Zimmerman’ showcases the best elements of any great South Park episode. This includes the dramatic irony of Cartman’s efforts; with his xenophobic ignorance on full display, along with a brazen commentary on race relations, the ‘stand your ground’ law, and the Zimmerman case. This is deep cutting satire that’s as funny as it is poignant.
The Game of Thrones Trilogy; ‘Black Friday’, ‘A Song of Ass and Fire’, ‘Titties and Dragons’. (S17 E7, 8, and 9) Air dates: 13.11.13, 20.11.13, 04.12.13
Though this is three episodes and not 1, I feel the need to include the three part satire for the sheer scale and epicness. Game of Thrones is aptly parodied throughout with trilogy; with a mall on black Friday serving as ‘the Wall’, frequent betrayals being discussed in an old man’s back yard, a ‘Red Robin wedding’, and George R. R. Martin talking in-depth about penises. There’s also plenty of outlandish, yet gripping story elements; such as the central conflict between X-box and PS4, Randy having to fight off the Whitewalker-esq black Friday shoppers, and Kenny becoming an Anime princess. This edges the other 2010’s ‘Coon and Friends’ trilogy, and even rivals season 11’s ‘Imaginationland’ trilogy due to the sheer fun and brilliant parody.
‘Handicar’. (S18 E4) Air Date: 15.10.14
For me, it was a toss-up between this and last season’s finale ‘PC Principal Final Justice’; which was a brilliant culmination of a series-long storyline, and was a witty critique of advertising, PC culture, and gun ownership a week after the San Bernardino shooting. But ‘Handicar’ gets the nod from me for purely comedic reasons. Apart from the plotline examining the pros of sharing services such as Uber, which fits in line with Parker and Stone’s Libertarian views, the episode is one big dose of belly laugh comedy. Said comedy in the episode is a definite homage to classic Hanna-Barbera, with the return of the characters of Nathan and Mimsy; who resemble Looney Tunes’ Rocky and Mugsy in their futile schemes to bring down Timmy. And the apex of the episode is when the conflict must be decided by the return of ‘Wacky Races’, with Dick Dastardly and Muttly, and Matthew McConaughey taking part. It’s silly on the surface, but can’t be dismissed as purely lowbrow; a perfect representation of South Park as a whole.