The Serialization of South Park: A Season 19 Mini-Analysis
South Park’s nineteenth season started on September 16, 2015, with “Stunning and Brave.” The episode itself is hysterically brilliant. It introduces an all-new major character, PC Principal, and along with him a revamped, serialized storytelling format that most longtime fans of the show were pleasantly surprised to see.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker manage to thread one large arc across ten episodes, each with their own subplots and themes. Season 18 had previously experimented with carrying gags and events across multiple episodes, and in fact it’s been done in much earlier runs such as Season 6, wherein Cartman mistakenly drinks Kenny’s ashes, thinking they were chocolate milk mix, and becomes possessed.
But in previous “serializations,” no overall theme presented itself. It was basically always just about the joke.
This isn’t the case in Season 19.
In its most recent run South Park tackles social issues such as gentrification, current “PC” culture and the horrific possibility of Donald Trump becoming President—all in its over-the-top, crude and offensive style.
It’s especially poignant how South Park’s parody of Whole Foods gets the blunt of Matt and Trey’s criticism. There’s a strong sense of dramatic irony in the way that Randy and the townspeople see Whole Foods as the herald of better living, when in reality it—and the PC culture it so cleverly parallels—is dividing their community and fostering hate.
This particular string of dramatic irony reaches its peak in episode five, “Safe Space.” In it, Cartman is the latest victim of body shaming over social media, and PC Principal assigns Butters the task of filtering all of Cartman’s Twitter responses so that he only sees the positive tweets. Cartman, along with the oblivious townspeople, are both figuratively and literally ignoring Reality, who haunts Butters as a caricature of a mustached Old West villain.
The season ends with a lot of commentary on the advertising industry. While comical and effective as individual episodes, the three-part season climax seemed rushed. After building tension over the course of an entire season, Matt and Trey just sort of ended it all, as if they were only writing the bare minimum required to place a check mark by each individual plot thread’s conclusion.
Even so, the ending isn’t entirely unsatisfying. It still contains plenty of great gags, and while there certainly could have been more to the story, it left me intrigued by not killing off PC Principal or resolving Mr. Garrison’s political campaign in a lazy and roundabout way—something I have come to expect from season finales in which the next season is usually followed by a soft reset. It’s exciting to think that not only have Matt and Trey adopted a more serialized format for Season 19, but also that they will be expanding on the characters and circumstances that have been setup through it. South Park rarely explores the consequences of individual episodes, let alone entire seasons, so I am looking forward to Season 20 and beyond.
As a parting side note, I don’t think South Park got the recognition it once would for such a good season. I think television shows such as Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman are starting to pull attention away from our favorite four foul-mouthed boys. I’d like to suggest that the serialization of South Park is desperately needed if the show is to remain relevant in the future. While I don’t think many past fans have developed distaste for the show, I do believe that a good number of them have simply lost interest. Newer television shows such as Rick and Morty bring fresh forms of parody and satire to their viewers with unique and exciting stories. Embracing a more serialized format will hopefully breathe new life into this stunning and brave series.
Hey you! Not in the mood to read? Check out my video version of this very analysis here.