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12 years after mocking Al Gore’s fight against climate change, South Park reconsiders

The long-running animated series appears to be grappling with both global warming and its legacy — if only a little.

South Park
Al Gore and the boys try to find ManBearPig.
Comedy Central
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For a while now, the most succinct takedown of the smug self-satisfaction of South Park at its worst has been a screencap of a Reddit comment.

Its central paragraph reads:

It’s a show that teaches its audience to become lazy and self-satisfied, that praises them for being uncritically accepting of their own biases, and that provides them with an endless buffet of thought-terminating cliches suitable for shutting down all manner of challenges to their comfort zones.

The comment itself is hard to find an exact date for — the earliest reference to it that I can find is from 2015 — but its general tenor speaks to a shifting understanding of South Park: What was once a fun, snarky takedown of America’s worst tendencies now reads to many as a TV series that taught an entire generation of kids that it’s stupid to care about anything, let alone engage with it politically.

And nothing underlines the comment’s sentiment better than its mention of “ManBearPig,” the subject of a 2006 South Park episode of the same name, from the show’s 10th season, in the very first line.

Released in the buildup to the premiere of An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore-featuring documentary on the devastating potential of climate change to remake the face of the planet, “ManBearPig” is a very 2006 take on the topic, with Gore enlisting the kids of South Park to hunt through some caves in search of the clearly made-up beast. Instead of capturing ManBearPig, Gore only makes things worse, and the episode subtly presents the argument that Gore is a hypocrite about climate change because he doesn’t live in a yurt or something.

Now, 12 years after “ManBearPig,” South Park has abruptly revisited the subject, in something of a surprising reversal. In the show’s latest episode, “Time to Get Cereal” (which aired November 7) ManBearPig is real, ManBearPig is angry, and everybody’s a little sad they made so much fun of Al Gore. It’s just the latest half-apology made by the show in an era when its “caring is for losers” ethos feels emptier and emptier.

Al Gore isn’t exactly vindicated by “Time to Get Cereal,” but the episode is quite clear that climate change is a real, massive problem

South Park
Our friend. Our hero. Our ManBearPig.
Comedy Central

The single most pointed segment in “Time to Get Cereal” involves a blowhard dude eating at a Red Lobster with his wife and kid. The wife is insistent that ManBearPig is a big problem, that it’s going to keep ravaging the countryside if something isn’t done. The husband says, first, that it’s made-up, and, well, if it is real, then what can we possibly do about it now? How can we know the Chinese will help us solve the problem, huh?

And all the while, ManBearPig — who’s smashed through a window into the restaurant — devours other diners, until he finally devours the husband as well. Notably, this sequence of footage is also the sequence that replays over the episode’s closing credits — which creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to reserve for moments of the episode they find particularly funny or pointed or both.

This is as close to an outright acknowledgment of ManBearPig as a stand-in for climate change as the episode gets. As such, it’s easy to interpret the scene as a mild repudiation of the 2006 episode. The arguments the husband makes before he gets eaten are the sorts of arguments a South Park hero might have made 12 years ago. They boil down to, “Why should I be forced to care? I don’t know that other people will.” But in the face of something that will cause massive death and devastation, those arguments pale just a bit.

This slight soberness also extends to how the episode treats Gore, whom South Park still sees as a figure to mock, but for a very different reason. In “Time to Get Cereal,” he’s become insufferable, because he was right about the threat of ManBearPig, when nobody else would listen. So before he’ll help the kids send ManBearPig back to hell — for that is where the beast issues from — he forces them to admit he was right and apologize. (It should be noted that Parker’s spin on Gore is one of his funnier impressions.)

But the joke here isn’t on Gore’s smugness, or his wrongness, or anything like that. It’s a joke about what happens when you finally convince people you were right all along, even if it takes more than a decade. Gore is still petulant and sniveling, but by the episode’s logic, he has a right to be — and that’s the main difference between “Time to Get Cereal” and “ManBearPig.”

Now, South Park is always gonna South Park. For one thing, “Time to Get Cereal” openly ends on a cliffhanger. It teases the upcoming November 14 episode “Nobody Got Cereal?” by putting the show’s main characters in jail with ManBearPig on the loose, so it’s possible the show will reverse at least some of what happened in “Time to Get Cereal.”

For another, most of the episodes in this young 22nd season (which began at the end of September) have been excuses for the kids to go on weird journeys. There might be political plots sprinkled in alongside those journeys, but the point is that the kids are having adventures, not that they’re learning important lessons about America along the way.

And that’s all in keeping with what the show has been doing since the election of Donald Trump. South Park wrote off Trump as a ridiculous buffoon when he was running for president, portraying him not via Trump himself, but via South Park teacher Mr. Garrison, who became Trump-esque. It’s as if the series isn’t sure how to live in a world that governs itself by South Park logic.

Yet that’s the larger conundrum South Park finds itself in. For a TV show driven by the same rationale as an internet troll — that provoking a reaction from those who care about literally anything is funnier than anything else on the face of the planet — it’s also become a show that increasingly seems uneasy about living in a world where the trolls have their way.

The longer animated TV shows stay on the air, the more out of step they become with the times they live in

South Park
The kids went trick-or-treating this year too.
Comedy Central

The animated sitcom can, theoretically, run forever. The only thing stopping it from doing so is the fact that it might eventually become unprofitable, because ratings will inevitably slip considerably. But considering that The Simpsons debuted (as a sitcom) in December 1989 and will turn 30 in a little over a year, it obviously takes quite a lot for a hit animated sitcom to become unprofitable.

A show like The Simpsons or South Park (which debuted in 1997) or Family Guy (1999) is really only limited by how long everybody involved wants to keep making it. That’s especially true for South Park, which is much more driven by the whims of Parker and Stone than their long-running animated peers. But it’s not as though the two couldn’t hand off the show to a new creative team if they ever wanted to. (Note: This will never happen.)

Regardless, the thing about animated TV shows is that they don’t really change, while the world around them does. If you’re familiar with The Simpsons’ beginnings, to watch an episode of the show in 2018 is to be instantly amused by how it was once the most subversive show on television. And though South Park maintains some degree of its bad-boy cred, a recent campaign for the show hinged on how babies born when it debuted are now old enough to be in college.

And all these shows are enmeshed in modes of storytelling that seemed entertaining when they premiered but now feel a little out of date. The Simpsons made a splash by pulling apart the tropes and ideas that TV had been built on for decades, taking a sledgehammer to the structure of the family sitcom. Now it’s just another institution.

Family Guy leaned into the sorts of ironically racist and sexist humor that was popular in the late ’90s, part of a wave of entertainment that lampooned what its creators perhaps saw as liberal overreach. Now it feels ever more like the “ironically” never modified “racist and sexist” as sharply as the show might have liked.

But no series has been as affected by the passage of time as South Park. On one hand, the series has been able to pivot more successfully than others, thanks to Parker and Stone’s continued involvement in every aspect of its production. On the other, it has never quite shed its status as TV’s most libertarian show, built atop the ethos that you shouldn’t bother caring about what other people do, unless they try to make you do something for the greater good, in which case, you should make fun of them.

In the 2010s, South Park has occasionally grappled with this element of its legacy. A whole season wondered if maybe people advocating for political correctness aren’t entirely wrong (just mostly wrong). And in a series of episodes that aired before and after the 2016 election, the show ended up turning Hillary Clinton into a more sympathetic figure than it typically let national politicians be. (It seemingly only did so because she lost, but there was something almost tender about the way the show portrayed her after the election, a marked contrast from her prior appearances.)

And yet South Park is still trapped, to some degree, by having launched in 1997, amid a booming American economy, where the issues that got Americans most worked up too often amounted to trivial bullshit. Even if you disagreed with South Park’s central “caring is stupid” ethos, it was a lot easier to let the show have its fun back then, without worrying about its cultural impact.

Now even Parker and Stone seem to wonder sometimes what South Park’s legacy might turn out to be. And what’s weirdly intriguing about episodes like “Time to Get Cereal” is the chance to watch the two of them look at who they were, who they are, and who they might become. They might still want to mock Al Gore, but in 2018, they know that doing so shouldn’t invalidate everything he says.

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