There aren’t many shows that have had a similar cultural impact to The Simpsons, but South Park is one of them. Carving out its own niche (that exploded into a massive audience over the years), creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker hit upon a formula that was able to stand toe and toe with Fox’s juggernaut. That a show about foul-mouthed kids is still making headlines nearly three decades after its inception just shows how popular the comedy has become.
Still, last year saw the show dip in quality pretty hard. Seemingly giving up on trying to be special, the season had a ton of disconnected one-off episodes that didn’t build up to anything particularly insightful or funny. This was a deliberate move to get away from the serialized format from a few years prior, but the execution of a more “classic” season just wasn’t right.
Thankfully, we’ve gotten a mixture of both the new and old South Park for season 23 that results in a mostly enjoyable ride.
South Park (Season 23)
Director: Trey Parker
Finale Release Date: December 11, 2019 (Comedy Central)
The first half of season 23 returns to the sequential format that South Park dabbled in during season 18. Focusing on Randy Marsh’s “Tegridy Farms,” the episodes form a small arc that acts almost like a meta-commentary on not only South Park itself, but streaming culture in general. While this becomes more apparent later on in the season, the very first episode doesn’t shy away from tackling a controversial political issue: ICE Detention Camps.
Having seen some of his neighbors getting carted off by ICE, Cartman gets the bright idea of calling border control on Kyle’s family. This leads to Kyle being separated from his friends and family for weeks on end with no idea of what’s going on. It’s a little tough to watch at times, but it’s definitely in the style of classic South Park episodes.
Not taking things too seriously, Kyle eventually explains to the detention guards that their treatment of Mexican immigrants is going to create something of a “Mexican Joker,” to which they take his words at face value. What if there really is a Mexican Joker?! They could stop him now and be heroes!
This episode is a two-pronged attack on the media, critiquing how newscasters aren’t focusing on the correct issues at hand while creating a media storm over nothing. It came at a time when fervor around the release of Joker was at a high and people were more concerned that a stupid movie would be warping our children’s minds than saving immigrant children. While funny in theory, the episode mostly goes through the motions without much else to say.
The second episode, though, couldn’t have released at a better time. Just days before gaming company Activision Blizzard was embroiled in controversy for kowtowing to the Chinese government, South Park saw Randy trying to kiss China’s ass to sell weed in the country. Not really referencing much from the previous episode –apart from Kyle and Cartman returning from the ICE camp–, the episode satirizes how corporations are willing to sell their own integrity to make bank in the Chinese market. It’s a trend that has become a hot talking point among critics because of how influential China’s pull is on our own entertainment. Randy also chokes out Winnie the Pooh, which is both extreme and hilarious.
The episode prodded China so much that South Park ended up getting banned in the country. To say it’s one of the more important episodes in the entire series run might be overselling it, but this is the kind of relevance the show lacked last season. Stone and Parker even issued an “apology” on Twitter that further adding fuel to the fire. Talk about being ballsy.
While that set my expectations high, the next few episodes don’t really deliver the same social commentary. The remainder of Randy’s Tegridy arc tackles other issues, but they seem a few years late to the party. One sees Cartman refusing to get vaccinated because it will make him “artistic.” It ends on a funny gag, but the whole anti-vaxxer thing has been debated for years now. It is possible the episode was responding to the World Health Organization’s classification of the movement as one of the top issues of 2019, but not much is said other than “let me make my own decisions.” Cartman’s mom eventually takes a needle for him and that’s that.
Even the episode comparing Incredible Burgers to other processed food is strangely behind the curve. A recent food craze in the summer of 2019, the whole “plant-based burger” phenomenon ended up with Burger King adding the “Impossible Whopper” to its menu in an effort to be more health-conscious. That happened months before South Park aired, so it’s not like there was anything to even really comment on. It’s true a lot of research hasn’t been done into the manufacturing of whatever these plant-based meats are, but the message seems to be we should let people eat whatever the hell they want. That’s hardly biting satire.
Where the season starts to lose it is after Randy’s own mini-series ends. Shifting away from Tegridy farms, each episode focuses on a different group as it attempts to critique how everything is getting spin-offs and extended universes building in our modern media. One episode is about the PC Babies, another on all the women of South Park, and another still about Scott Malkinson, a character known mostly for his diabetes. The very plots are almost incidental to the meta-joke that media is growing too rapidly.
This is where I draw the comparison to classic South Park. Up until roughly season 14, the show was mostly a series of disconnected episodes in a basic sitcom format. Jokes would happen and were occasionally about topical issues, but the narrative never went beyond its 20-minute duration (save for two-parters and certain specials). These last episodes do have some continuity but could stand alone without any explanation like in the past.
It’s certainly nice to see that mixture of old and new, but there aren’t even similar themes going on. The PC Babies special is about the awkward discussion around transgender rights, though many took it in a completely unintended way. The idea is that the character of Heather Swanson –who is portrayed like The Macho Man Randy Savage– is supposed to be the radical right’s perception of what men want to accomplish by calling themselves women. The execution can be perceived as casting doubts on trans-rights, however.
The very next episode doesn’t continue the discussion on tough topics. Instead, we’re on to discussing C. Diff (a pretty painful illness caused by modern antibiotics) and how people are fixated on miracle cures. After that, there’s a jab at the multitude of streaming services and the saturation of that particular market before the season ends with Santa and Jesus sniffing coke with Randy. It’s just so scatterbrained and wacky without much connective thread.
I can appreciate not wanting to draw out a story that can be summed up in six episodes, but sprinkling these one-offs in between Randy’s arc could have made the season feel a little more cohesive. Still, the visuals gags are outrageous and the season constantly mixes things up that it’s hard to feel bored.
Maybe this last season doesn’t see Stone and Parker delivering their A-game, but it’s a mostly consistent string of episodes that offer a few laughs each. There are even some standouts here, which is something you couldn’t say about season 22. A more defined through line would have improved things immensely, but I can’t fault South Park for trying to keep things light.
In an increasingly volatile political environment that sees people shifting allegiances on a daily basis, we sometimes just need a reminder of the good old days. Season 23 mostly feels like that, which is good enough for now.