I can’t say I really loved last night’s South Park episode, the last of the spring-summer season, but it was certainly one of the most interesting shows they’ve done in a while. Partly because it was so downbeat, leaving people arguing over whether it was a parody of sappy dramas. Much like the “Kenny Dies” episode, where the joke was that the running gag of Kenny dying was suddenly being treated very seriously, and they actually left him dead for much of the next season. It remains to be seen whether the ending of this episode will carry on over into the next batch of episodes in quite the same way, before everything goes back to status quo again. South Park usually shakes things up for a while – not only with Kenny, but Mr. Garrison – and then finds a way to reset it all eventually.
The other thing that made the episode resonate with a lot of fans of the show is that it dealt with themes that are close to a lot of people’s hearts. The episode took on the issue of facile cynicism, and how miserable it can be for the person who thinks he sees the flaws in everything. It also took on the idea that it’s not all cynicism, that sometimes things really are bad and that the cynical person (Stan in this case) really sees something wrong. It used Randy Marsh once again as the example of a person determined to keep up with every new trend and never get old and cynical, only to wind up looking like an idiot. And finally, it was about how things that used to work may really be not as good as they used to be, if they’ve been done too often.
That last scene already is creating arguments about whether this is leading up to the end of the show (probably not) and whether this is Trey Parker’s statement about being out of ideas. The last bunch of episodes have not been very good, the show has been on for over 200 episodes, and its cultural relevance is not what it was. (It seemed last season that most of the plots were based on Parker and Stone’s viewing of cable reality TV shows.) I’d be inclined to doubt that Parker and Stone really think they’re out of ideas, and the episode could just as easily be read as a take-that to people who criticize them for being out of ideas: it’s not the show, it’s just that it’s been on too long and we’ve gotten jaded.
I didn’t laugh a whole lot at the episode because of the repetitiveness of the poop jokes, which have never really been the funniest things in South Park. (Remember, the point of the Terrance & Phillip bits was to be a caricature of what people thought South Park was like: badly-drawn characters doing nothing but bodily-function humour. This episode pretty much was that for much of its length.) But it did have something interesting to say, and maybe that’s the key to a revitalized South Park: a more personal, middle-aged angsty point of view to replace the sources of story material that seem played-out. Sort of like how Peanuts spent its last few years making most of the kids act like elderly people.