Because it’s 2015: South Park’s stellar 19th season gets a timely makeover

South Park has always had a funny way of dealing with continuity. Even though the show will occasionally make some permanent structural changes to its ridiculous universe, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have never taken that notion of permanence very seriously. After all, this is a series where one of the four main characters has died and come back to life 80 times. Apart from some of the multi-episode sagas like “Imaginationland” and “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?”/“Probably,” South Park has mostly avoided serialized plotlines. This approach has worked brilliantly for a show that responds to current events as they play out and literally constructs an episode from scratch every week during the season—the show feels less clunky when it can do an episode about Cartman being trained by “The Dog Whisperer” and not be obligated to address the fact that when we last checked in on South Park, Al Gore was rallying townspeople against the inconvenient truth of ManBearPig’s existence.

But 19 years in, South Park finally decided to shake things up, opting instead for interconnected themes and a long-term story arc. Suddenly, each episode started picking up right where the last one left off and built towards a well-planned, climactic finale. Yet, as much as this feels like a major shift for the show’s writing style, nothing with South Park has really changed. It’s doing the same thing it’s always done: satirizing our times to the best of Trey and Matt’s abilities. While South Park has found success by treating each episode like a blank canvas, it’s mainly because the themes it tackled on a week-to-week basis were spontaneous and highly varied. In 2015 though, it stumbled upon the elusive theme that was both weighty enough to warrant continual attention and broad enough to accommodate a season’s worth of angles: the rise of Political Correctness (PC).

While PC as a concept is nothing new, it’s never been as prevalent or far-reaching in North America than it was in 2015—and rightfully so. As far as we’ve come in terms of moving towards a society that properly accommodates and supports people from all walks of life, there’s still a long, long way to go before the attitudes that perpetuate regular interpersonal injustices are anywhere close to being phased out. For every person that complains about the excessiveness of something like Safe Spaces on college campuses, there are many post-secondary students that do feel severely marginalized and benefit greatly from having such a policy in place.

Now, occupying the moral high ground is an inherent aim of PC culture. If you’re genuinely fighting against intolerance and insensitivity, it logically follows that you should be considered to be a more honourable person than someone who isn’t. Though that certainly makes sense from an ideological standpoint, the real-life manifestation of PC culture is not without its faults—even if those faults are exponentially less egregious than what PC exists to remedy. Over the course of Season 19, Trey and Matt unpack these manifestations as they pertain to various topics du jour, and it makes for the most entertaining season of South Park to hit Comedy Central in a long time. They’re not out to necessarily refute PC principles, but as always, they want to remind us that we’re all kind of up our own asses, regardless of overarching intentions.

That’s how we come to meet PC Principal, a buff newcomer who’s brought in to replace Principal Victoria and get South Park Elementary up to speed with modern PC protocol. He’s a textbook bro, and with his hyper-aggressive personality and PC principles (gotta love that pun), he takes the town by storm and sets the stage for all the PC shenanigans that follow. Within a few days, he bands with nearby PC bros like himself and starts a fraternity dedicated to the atypical trio of booze, partying, and upholding social justice.

In some ways the ‘frat boys as hardcore advocates for societal progressiveness’ gimmick was very reminiscent of “Broadway Bro Down,” a Season 15 episode where many of our generation’s greatest male playwrights (Webber, Sondheim, etc.) are ironically portrayed as the biggest bros of all. Despite the connection though, that whole aspect of Season 19 still felt fresh, especially because Trey and Matt weren’t just fabricating a comical juxtaposition, they were playing off of one that’s becoming increasingly accurate. With all the backlash in recent years directed towards frats for issues like their notoriously inappropriate hazing rituals and attitudes towards consent, many have started to be far more mindful of the culture they promote. In this exaggerated rendering of the modern frat, it’s an amusing juxtaposition to watch them raucously spew out the proper PC language, yet fail to really break from tradition or show any non-regulated empathy towards the people they’re supposedly advocating for (they’re still a bunch of binge-drinking white dudes whose main concern is “crushing pussy”).

Perhaps the best ripple effect of the frat setting up shop in South Park (from a viewing perspective, at least), is how it sweeps up Randy Marsh and converts him into one of their own. Before we go any farther, let’s just appreciate the beauty that is him dancing to Silentó’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).”

Randy has always been one of the show’s most impulsive characters. Whether it’s combating the imagined effects a present-day ice age or converting the family to Mormonism, he just goes after things with full force—usually with a lukewarm understanding at best of what he’s doing. So naturally when the PC movement hits South Park, he gleefully hops on board, only to have his ignorance and phony motivations exposed at every turn. Randy’s magnum opus for the season is spearheading South Park’s gentrification in order to bring a Whole Foods store to the town, but he’s got a hand in pretty much all of the PC plotlines this season and fits in perfectly each time.

One of those comes in the fifth episode, “Safe Space,” when Randy starts experiencing charity shaming every time he reaches the checkout counter at Whole Foods (yes, the Whole Foods he brought in). While this storyline was executed nicely—culminating in Randy filming commercials that use poor children in developing countries to help raise awareness for the shaming that goes on in lavish grocery stores—the main plot for that episode didn’t quite hit the mark as well as it could have. Trey and Matt go after all the hooplah surrounding body shaming, invoking celebrities who have spoken out against the issue through the media. Although the episode is able to effectively satirize those who post ridiculous pictures online and only expect positivity in return (“Lena Dunham just put a picture of her asshole on Twitter and wants only the positive comments”), it blatantly ignores the perspective of non-public figures who are legitimately affected by the issue (Cartman doesn’t count). Maybe they just figured that people didn’t need to be re-informed about the fact that there are pricks on the Internet—and in life—who, without provocation, make people feel terrible about their bodies; but by not addressing it, the episode felt kind of hollow.

“You’re Not Yelping” was another episode that slightly underwhelmed. The concept of amateur Yelp reviewers who start believing they have professional critic-worthy sway isn’t a bad premise, but there’s very little going on otherwise to balance it out. It’s more of a stand-alone episode compared to the rest of the season, so it can’t really rely on the greater arc to bail it out (as “Truth and Advertising”—part two of the trilogy that wraps up the season—does).

Aside from those, it’s pretty difficult to find many missteps in the season. Debut episode “Stunning and Brave” nicely touched on two of the summer’s biggest news stories (Caitlyn Jenner and Deflategate) and provided us with what was probably the best summation out there of the Brady/Belichick-Goodell feud.

“Tweek x Craig” was an offbeat but surprisingly fun episode. Sort of a sequel to “Tweek vs. Craig,” which premiered in 1999, it draws from the Asian art of yaoi, which basically entails illustration of love between boys. Ever since the 1999 episode, people have legitimately been making these about Tweek and Craig, and “Tweek x Craig” features actual fan art.

As events unfold, it serves as a nice reminder of the fact that South Park is so swept up in trying to appear PC that it’s often happy to ignore the reality of a situation or admit to being confused. “Naughty Ninjas” is another solid installment that makes great use of the rarely used gem of a character Officer Barbrady. With a plot that loosely involves ISIS, it also highlights the lack of an episode centering around the Paris attacks, which is perhaps something Trey and Matt would’ve done had they not committed to a serialized season.

For all the hype that it’s gotten this year, PC is only one of the attitudes that’s been shaking up America. Things are at the point where Donald Trump, who has built a campaign around a number of bigoted ideas, has a legitimate chance to be the next President of the United States. Second episode “Where My Country Gone” skillfully mocks the Trump situation without ever actually mentioning Trump’s name. While Mr. Garrison goes through a Trump-like assent in the 2016 Presidential race, Canada is presented as a cautionary tale for what can happen when an outlandish, unqualified candidate gets egged on by the public long enough for him to actually win. It’s one of those premises that certainly feels like an exaggeration of reality that could never actually take place—something that South Park does all the time—but this time around, that’s sadly not the case. The many facets of PC culture gave Trey and Matt lots of episodic fodder over the whole season, but with Trump and the awfulness of everything he represents, they decided to just come down on him hard in one fell swoop.

When Season 19 comes to a close—following the aforementioned trilogy that centers around the prevalence of ads in society and also examines the gun control debate for good measure—we’re left with a lot to ponder. One of the season’s final moments shows PC Principal giving a speech to the entire school, addressing some of the challenges that the future will bring, and obviously assuring everyone that those challenges can be combated by continuing to be super PC. Towards the end of the speech, Stan turns to Kyle and says simply, “This is gonna be tough,” in reference to the year ahead. It was a comment that nicely sums up where we’re at right now. If this season/year felt overblown and loaded with major political themes, just wait till the next one. The real 2016 election is only drawing closer and will be a critical time for America given the state of affairs both domestically and abroad. Buckle up, buckaroo.


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