Satire is in a difficult place right now; the current political landscape is impossible to clown, given daily events are already unbelievably absurd. Donald Trump is the most notable example, his behaviour is too ridiculous to exaggerate, as South Park co-creator, Trey Parker, admitted; “nothing’s funnier than the monkey just running himself into the wall.” However, the reality of a Trump president’s harmful actions is an increasingly depressing prospect, making it harder and harder to chuckle at jokes aimed his way.
Almost immediately after his election, South Park became victim of a post-Trump America. In the middle of their most continuity focused season yet, a post-election episode titled ‘The Very First Gentleman’ was written under the assumption Hillary would win – a reflection of the showrunners’ inability to see outside the elite media bubble that has become a prevailing problem for South Park – and had to be stitched together into an episode that reflected the Trump victory. This truly fucked up the remaining episodes for the season, aimlessly taking the plot to an unsatisfying conclusion where the trolling storyline is stretched too long, and the member berries plot ended in a clumsy Nazi parallel.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone clearly don’t really have the storytelling ability to pull off continuity, leading to a business-as-usual South Park for the latest season. Season 21 has so far focused on topics in which Trump has placed himself at the centre, but awkwardly sidestepped his presence as much as possible. ‘Put It Down’ a North Korea focused episode has ‘President Garrison’, (essentially Mr Garrison rewritten into having Trump’s penchant for vitriolic bigotry and toddler tantrums) send out a few tweets to aggravate North Korea, something which is a far more distressing event in the real world. This ultimately shows how South Park’s world has almost become a tepid reflection of IRL ridiculousness, somehow a reverse of its previous role.
However, South Park’s biggest issue when lampooning politics for season 21 is its position. Ideological wars are defining political conversation as people are drawn further into the left and right in the face of neoliberal economics and reactionary views to social justice. South Park’s continued position, which sees both sides as bad, believing it to be lame to have any kind of passionately held belief feels unattractive given what is at stake in this ideological struggle. This nihilistic centrism is revealing Stone and Parker as out of touch when approaching these issues, ‘White People Renovating House’ sees them revisiting the topic of liberal bandwagons, something they’d already covered deep enough with the introduction of PC Principal, we get it guys – caring about this stuff is dumb. Trying to parallel the alt-right’s violent obsession with preserving confederate history as seen in the Charlottesville protest with the legitimately concern of blue collar workers getting replaced with automation was a real miss for the show. Being so dismissive of legitimate concerns of the working class, effectively depicting this as right-wing bigotry and refusal to ‘better themselves’, shows the lack of ability to understand movements they’re parodying, leading to confused version of the moral messages that used to define the conclusion of South Park episodes.
Similarly, ‘Holiday Special’ takes aim at white guilt in a way that doesn’t understand the intention behind it, seeing Randy once again used as an analogue for their hang ups with liberals, portraying the whole movement as a shallow attempt at playing the victim is itself a shallow put down. This raises another issue, South Park has been overusing certain characters, particularly Randy, whose jumping onto fads is a consistent character trait, and has therefore led to thier tired depiction of social issues through the lens of Randy. This demonstrates a wider issue with South Park, they’ve gotten way too comfortable in their template, episodes have settled into a pattern – remining the same issues they feel safe mocking -and they’ve lost thier ability to shock.
There’s even times when the show hardly feels necessary. Their insistence on creating an episode in 7 days, to keep up with topical issues still sees them falling behind. The news is moving so fast that, by the time South Park airs, social media has dissected and memed the topic to death. The quickfire creation of episodes occasionally gets a moment, like a perfectly executed Harvey Weinstein barb, but for every moment like this, there’s culturally oblivious times like a focus on fidget spinners. They’re beginning to approach a Simpsons-tier sluggishness at parodying popular culture, so perhaps stepping away from this release structure could see them trading topical relevance for more time spent enhancing the comedic quality.
There have, however, been bright spots within this season. ‘Franchise Prequal’, an episode that revisits the kid’s superhero personas, perfectly aims its jokes at Marvel’s bloated cinematic universe rollout. Its depiction of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is genuinely hilarious, as an unblockable, poorly dubbed real life entity, it recalls the shows early irreverence of bizarre exaggerations of beloved celebrity, and switches back to the kids being kids formula that feels like a respite from the heavy political lean, even if the episode prominently features a fake news narrative.
After thankfully abandoning continuity, the only connective tissue between these latest episodes are their celebration of hip hop, parodies of Logic and Kendrick Lamar, an original Killer Mike verse that compares old folks’ homes to a prison, and an unlikely soundtrack of Stiches ‘Brick on Yo’ Face’, shows that showrunners have a somewhat keen appreciation of the current pop cultural zeitgeist, despite a habit of troublingly stereotypical portrayals of rappers. Their newly released game, the ‘Fractured But Whole’, features a segment that mocks Kanye West’s video game tribute to his mother, which demonstrates South Park at their most mean spirited and disrespectful, recalling their nasty handling of Steve Irwin’s death, it doesn’t help that both Kanye and his mother are depicted as horrifically outdated black stereotypes. It’s hard to digest their light ribbing of rappers when far uglier portrayals exist.
The whole appeal of tuning into South Park used to be seeing just about everyone targeted under their satire scope – they must be the only satirical show to effectively ridicule agnostics after all – even if it was you own movement being ripped on. However, the show has become increasingly confused when parodying political movements, it’s failing to see everything under a wider lens, and it’s becoming a chore to watch because of it. It’s difficult to know where South Park could go from here, but for the first time ever, if feels like avoiding topics they struggle with is essential, otherwise they’ll keep committing the biggest crime a comedy can, an inability to induce laughter.