Checking in on ‘South Park’ Halfway Through Season 17
South Park has dealt with its one-week turnaround for years. Because of it, like Norm MacDonald once said of SNL, South Park is one of the few places where you can go to be bad. The short production schedule from writing to editing to animating to voicing gives the show some leeway with viewers. This frees Stone and Parker to try some sillier ideas; though, it also allows them to get a little attention deficit with their stronger episodes.
This season, however, the schedule has been a curse. For the first time in over a decade, Parker and Stone missed a deadline, leaving Comedy Central to air a repeat, the world to cave in, and viewers to wait for their own violent demise. It also meant that the latest episode, “Taming Strange,” would be a week late.
Like many episodes this season, “Taming the Strange” jammed two controversial pieces of culture (Miley Cyrus; healthcare.gov’s ongoing 404) together. While these topics seem to work well enough on their own, together they repel each other. With no thread to tie the two plots together, “Taming the Strange” is indicative of season 17’s biggest issue: the war between A and B plots. To make a thoroughly satisfying half hour, the two plots must coalesce. “Taming” reminded me of the season 13 gem, “The Ring,” but while that episode made a strong argument about the Jonas Brothers selling of sexuality to kids, “Taming” makes a comment on growing up, another on the overly computerized healthcare system, and, finally, fails to see that there are two disparate episodes at work.
Some installments manage to plow through these dividing lines and create unifying point, even if that point is a little suspect. The best South Park episodes deliver one speechless moment, where something just smacks us in the face with surprise. One episode packed this punch: “World War Zimmerman.” The show couldn’t pass up the opportunity to satirize the biggest, most controversial news story of the year, and who better to ring the sirens of paranoia than Eric Cartman. Packing the chaos of “Scott Tenorman Must Die” and racial tiptoeing of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson,” “WWZ” stands as season 17’s most hilarious and tense half hour. Although the thin connection between Cartman and Brad Pitt distracted from the overall message, South Park‘s take on race relations in a post-Zimmerman apocalypse seemed to reflect the nation’s confused spirit. The episode is both gleefully chaotic and politically incorrect in a way that only South Park can get away with.
Another standout episode played to the show’s second biggest strength: Randy Marsh. No character can cut through a weak premise like Randy, and in “Informative Murder Porn,” he manages to get carried away by another one of life’s most trivial obsessions. Like the classic “The Losing Edge” and the less classic, but still pretty awesome, “Creme Fraiche,” Randy latches on to the addictions of America’s binge-watchers by parodying a national fad that has barely been recognized yet. It is in the tie to Minecraft that the episode started to lose me. Still, the conclusion, which found the two plots (the town’s parents’ obsession with true crime docudramas, and the kids’ obsession with Minecraft) meeting in the middle, worked far better than the episode that followed it.
The Goth Kids have always been a welcome addition to the show’s universe. However, an episode about them being turned into “emos” seems far too geriatric. There’s a whole lot “I don’t understand the kids’ music” in “Goth Kids 3.” It’s also extremely telling when the button of the episode comments on how stupid the whole thing had been. There are some laughs, just not the memorable or zeitgeist-capturing kind. Strangely enough, “Goth Kids 3” didn’t have to worry about a B plot to weigh it down. The shaky premise did just fine on its own.
But South Park doesn’t always have to knock these things out of the park. Even in “Let Go, Let Gov,” the episode’s lack of point of view didn’t always detract from the joy of watching Cartman infiltrate the NSA. The quick turnaround doesn’t always lend itself so easily to well-thought-out arguments about the complications of government surveillance. South Park’s best seasons surprise viewers by capturing the nation’s reaction to its own headlines. Last season’s Honey Boo-Boo epic, “Lowering the Bar,” seemed to get people talking about South Park again. The show’s fearless sense of humor continues to justify its own existence. TV still needs South Park to go too far, not make sense of the news.
Season 17 does this with “World War Zimmerman.” The subject matter may be a bit too grave to make it one of the show’s most quotable or iconic episodes, but as long as the show can still put a fearless POV on something most comedies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, I’d say that after 17 years, the show still has a strong place on television. Wednesdays at 10 remains claimed by South Park, and it looks like they’ll stand steadfast for another season.