We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.
Consuming television in 2016 is a lot like collecting trading cards. We watch to be entertained, sure, but just as important is being able to say that we have a certain show in our collection. I don’t actually give a shit about what happens in Homeland. I just don’t want my friends to one-up me whenever we hang out. When my buddies take turns gushing, "That last episode was sooooo good, wasn’t it?" for 20 minutes on end, it’s crucial to my existence to be able to reply "so good, you guys" instead of sitting there like a doofus. Being a TV watcher these days is about having a great show in your arsenal that nobody else in your circle has. We all watch the popular shows to keep up with one another, but our real fulfillment comes when we ask everyone at a party if they’ve heard of Trailer Park Boys. When they say no, we make sure they understand that we’re better than them as we stand there grinning stupidly, like we love the smell of our own farts.
If TV shows are trading cards, then South Park is the card that came in the starter pack for everyone younger than 40. We’re all familiar with it to some degree, and for many of us it was the first show that we talked about with our friends. The easiest way to get lunch-table laughs at my elementary school was to do a Cartman impression and/or make fun of any kid named Kenny. If you weren’t busting up classmates by joking about the farts and cuss words on the show the day it after it aired, you weren’t coooo. And being coooo was the most important thing in the world.
Two episodes into its 20th season, South Park is better than it’s ever been. If I really stopped to think about it, I might consider South Park to be my favorite show of all time. And yet, if you were to ask me to name my favorite shows, I’d probably forget to mention it. That’s because I just don’t talk to people about South Park anymore. As great as it is, the shelf life for discussing any given episode is one or two days at most. I can have conversations regarding Season 1 of Game of Thrones years after it aired, but if I don’t see you the Thursday or Friday after a new episode of South Park comes out, chances are I’m not going to talk to you about it.
There are plenty of plausible explanations for this. Because the show is driven by current events, the relevance of an individual episode is inherently tied to the news cycle. And even if an episode remains relevant months after its broadcast, South Park tackles so many hot-button issues that it’s nearly impossible to discuss the show without revealing your stance on them. Conversations about South Park can go from zero to "No, YOU’RE the racist!" so fast that it’s easier to just keep your thoughts on an episode to yourself. And, of course, what’s so fun about discussing other shows is trying to figure out what twists and turns might come next; that isn’t really a thing with South Park, which has been a nonserialized comedy in all but a select few instances.
But I think we’re also taking South Park for granted. It doesn’t matter that the show has gotten better with age. What matters is that it’s almost impossible for anything to stay cool for 20 years. South Park is still hilarious, still sharp with its commentary, and still appointment TV for me. But I’m not sure it’s coooo anymore, and that’s a damn shame.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older and more aware of the world around me, if it’s because South Park cocreators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are doing the same thing, or if it’s some combination of both, but the last season of the show and the first two episodes of this season are scratching my itch in the most satisfying way possible. It feels like America is growing more divided with each passing day, and maybe that’s a result of us generally hearing from two sides when an issue arises. Something happens, Side A yells about how wrong it is, and Side B counters by yelling about how right it is. Then Side A and Side B shout at each other in hopes that calling the opposition idiots loud and often enough will eventually get people to change their minds. But there’s a third side in most cases, and that side is made up of people like me, who wish everyone would calm down and shut the hell up already.
It’s on this third side — Side C, we’ll call it — where South Park thrives. Side C typically remains silent about important issues. We watch from afar, content to stay out of things because we know that sharing our opinion, 140 characters at a time, on the complexities facing modern society is a fool’s errand. As debates rage on, Side A and Side B become more entrenched in their beliefs, while it’s easy for those of us on Side C to contemplate our place in the world. We notice that most people we interact with seem to have strong opinions about everything, and start to wonder if maybe we’re the ones who are wrong for not calling strangers "pieces of shit" on the internet. Am I the only one who has too many personal problems to start having problems with other people, too? Am I the only one who just wants everyone on Side A and Side B to take FIVE FUCKING SECONDS to put themselves in the other side’s shoes? Just when I start to think I’m the lone impartial observer, South Park comes along and says, "No. No, you aren’t."
Here’s the genius of South Park, though: Even Side C isn’t let off the hook. Because the ultimate sin to Parker and Stone, one could discern from watching South Park for long enough, is to care about, well … anything. And while it might appear that Side C doesn’t commit this sin, the truth is that we care deeply about not caring. We get so wrapped up in rolling our eyes at Side A and Side B that we’re oblivious to the fact that just sitting on the sidelines waiting to die makes for the most worthless existence imaginable. So South Park steps in and rips on nihilists, emos, cynics, and everyone else who would rather just shrug at how screwed up the world is than try to do anything to fix it. South Park really is the one show on TV that addresses the major social issues of the day, offers commentary on those issues, and somehow stays unbiased about it all.
And that’s why South Park is so important. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we’re all basically a bunch of dumb animals trying our best. Most of the time, there are no right or wrong answers. There’s just a world full of grown children pretending to be adults, fighting an endless war with memes, tweets, and out-of-context Facebook videos that COMPLETELY EVISCERATE those dummies on the other side. By making fun of everyone, South Park is doing what it can to bring us together, if only we’d pay attention to the message: There isn’t always an obvious solution, so maybe we should try to listen to each other’s point of view instead of seeing who can yell the loudest.
Sadly, the exact opposite happens with South Park far too often, as people simply latch onto the parts of the show that solidify their beliefs while dismissing the rest of its commentary. Take last season, for example. The show touched on all sorts of things, from advertising to gentrification to Yelp reviews. But the season’s main theme revolved around the idea that everything has to be politically correct these days. In typical South Park fashion, the show lobbed grenades at both sides, mocking the assholes who think they’re "telling it like it is" just as much as it mocked the professional victims who get their feelings hurt by everything. And when the dust settled, all sorts of people from Side A and Side B cherry-picked whatever jokes aligned with their arguments as they triumphantly declared, "I knew I was right! South Park agrees with me!"
Even if the message doesn’t always get through, though, South Park keeps trying its best, 30 minutes at a time for going on 20 years. I used to love it because of the foul language and the funny voices. Then I loved it because of the ludicrous plots and the character mannerisms that made me cry from laughing so hard. Now I love it because every episode seems to say what I’m feeling about the world much more brilliantly than I ever could. The point is, there are plenty of reasons to love South Park, and each is as important as the next. All that ultimately matters is that we appreciate the show for what it is and acknowledge that we’re going to miss it like hell when it’s gone.
After all, the world needs more people who love South Park. Because people who love South Park are people who can laugh at themselves, and people who can laugh at themselves are really the only people I ever want to encounter.