In its 19th season, South Park has embraced serialization.
It hasn't come out of nowhere; the show has dabbled with extended story arcs in the past. But this season is the first ever to weave a handful of big story threads throughout several episodes, even if all of those episodes tell individual stories. The predominant plot of a single episode might be about, say, the town of South Park's Yelp reviewers demanding to be treated with respect, but the other storylines are all continued from previous installments.
It's a canny setup, one that has earned South Park massive amounts of praise. Entertainment Weekly has named season 19 the show's best in a decade, while Indiewire is applauding its "whole new level of contemporary commentary." And numerous other publications have singled out how the show's renewed focus on a single target — the so-called new political correctness — has given it a sense of purpose it's lacked in recent years.
I wouldn't go quite that far. South Park's Achilles heel has always been its too-easy insistence that believing in anything is inherently ridiculous, and it's better to sit back and mock political reactionaries, be they from the right or left. Though season 19 is certainly the most ambitious season of South Park in ages, it too often falls into this supremely lazy line of satire.
But in taking on political correctness, South Park has at least opened the door to a little self-examination. And in one creative choice it's made, the series has struck a satirical masterstroke.
For the first time in its history, South Park is organizing a season around a central story and theme
At the center of season 19's story is a new character named "PC Principal," who's replaced Principal Victoria. He's a muscular, tall dude in Oakley glasses who shouts things into microphones and tackles almost every problem aggressively (and often with his fists). He's followed into South Park by lots and lots of other guys in his demographic — young, fratty, and white.
They all care about social justice issues. They care deeply about social justice issues. If you don't, they'll get in your face about it in an attempt to reeducate you. And, South Park being South Park, they quickly win a bunch of converts among the townspeople, who want to feel good about themselves and make sure they're doing the most they possibly can for the disadvantaged among them.
For a time, they even win the support of Cartman, South Park's unrestrained id, a little kid whose politically incorrect bromides never feel very threatening because he's so obviously an awful person and, well, he's a little kid. In the season premiere, after PC Principal beats the shit out of Cartman for attempting to blackmail him, Cartman suggests that maybe, as a little white boy who's never had to face any real adversity, he can't know what it's like for others out there.
But what's been most telling about this ongoing storyline is who's on the side of PC Principal in the show's universe: They're all white dudes, white dudes who are more into the performative aspects of seeming like they care about social justice issues than actually doing anything about them.
In one episode, starving African orphans aren't given food but, rather, iPads they can use to help keep social media free of mean comments. In another, a lower-class neighborhood of South Park is gentrified and turned into a bastion of hip trendiness, while its poor residents (Kenny's family) become, effectively, zoo animals to be gawked at. In still another story, young, fragile Butters is made to sift through the oceans of bile the internet heaps upon its endless supply of targets, so that they might only see the good things.
The implication of all of these scenarios is clear: In attempting to create a world without victims, PC Principal and company are just creating different ones.
South Park gets one big thing right about how we discuss political correctness
While discussing the season premiere in the context of another story I'm working on, a trans person first mentioned how apt they found South Park's portrayal of PC Principal in that episode, before telling me:
I feel like, within this universe where my rights are a trend, that it's so hard to navigate who sincerely wants to help me, and who is using me as their latest pet project to feel good about themselves. There is a fashionability about causes now. ... I want to be treated as human, not as a cause or a totem for how terrible America is.
And it's not hard to point to other times when online progressivism has started from a well-meaning place but has ultimately become a kind of battle over how "good" various participants in the conversation can be, while losing sight of the very real people at the center of the discussion — and sometimes the people who may be hurting most. In the rush to celebrate the wide breadth of human experience, the same sorts of voices that have always risen to the top keep rising to the top. And that's exactly what PC Principal and his ilk represent.
It's when South Park digs deepest into this fashionable, social media–friendly form of political correctness that it really hits its stride. Series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are often guilty of seeming like they don't care about anything, but they really do seem to care about the idea that sometimes, uncomfortable conversations are worth having. They're attuned to the fact that you can't change people's deepest-held thoughts and beliefs simply by making them use kinder language.
I'm skeptical of some of this — pushing back against unthinking and unfeeling jokes that unnecessarily demean others might feel like simple language policing, but it's also an important way in which we build new social mores and customs. However, I also see Parker and Stone's point that far too much of the discussion of today's social justice issues takes place between people who already have plenty of power and are more interested in dictating to the powerless how they can best issue their grievances.
South Park sometimes diminishes genuine problems
When South Park has wandered further afield from season 19's central theme of misplaced political correctness, it's either ended up with episodes that are tedious (like the largely boring Yelp installment) or ones that seem to diminish the genuine problems that movements like the ones Parker and Stone are mocking initially rose up to combat.
The season's fifth episode, for instance, took on the notion of "safe spaces" while almost entirely managing to misunderstand why anyone would call for a safe space, much less what they even are. (South Park reimagined safe spaces as the most literal interpretation of those two words possible — a glass cube where nothing and nobody could bother you.) The episode concluded with a silent movie villain–style character named "Reality" rambling about how, yeah, there's toxic shit online, and some of it might be directed at you, but what are you gonna do?
Parker and Stone make some good points — particularly when they suggest that it's impossible and maybe even inhuman to live one's life without attracting any sort of negative attention whatsoever — but the idea that, somehow, the very action of using the internet means you sign an invisible contract with the universe that allows everyone to pile abuse upon you in whatever manner they want is a faulty one that's behind many of the real problems building up around online abuse and harassment.
Are there worse things than bad internet comments? Sure, but as someone who's seen lots and lots of women in his life become the targets of angry internet mobs, such comments are certainly not something that should be excused as condonable behavior, even in the implicit, "Humans are the worst!" sense. I share plenty of skepticism about safe spaces and trigger warnings and what have you, but it's hard to deny that the reasons for them to exist are profound and necessary.
Of course, every time I think I can pin down this season of South Park, it slithers away from me. It appears to be a cautionary tale against political correctness in one episode, and then it rolls its eyes about Donald Trump and anti-immigration fervor in the next. Parker and Stone still seem a little too eager to be above it all, but they also seem, for the first time in a long time, a little uncertain of their place in all of this. South Park has coasted for years now. Even if not everything works, it's nice to see the show waking up again.