The recent South Park episode “Turd Burglars” features a scene in which a group of middle-aged women simultaneously puke and spray misty diarrhea all over a fancy restaurant. This comes after a scene in which Stan, Cartman, and Kenny unscrew the plumbing in the Broflovski’s basement so they can catch an enormous poop log, courtesy of Kyle’s mom, in a bucket. And that’s not even to mention the closet full of Tom Brady’s individually jarred turds.
The entire episode is vile, revolting, and gratuitous. It also tells a complete, logical, and genuinely hilarious story. “Turd Burglars” was a welcome return to form for South Park and a sign that after many years lost in the narrative wilderness, the show may have finally gotten its priorities straight. South Park may be synonymous with satire and politics (remember 2001’s “South Park Republican” phase?) but the reason it has lasted for 23 years isn’t because of any insightful political commentary. Instead South Park’s defining feature has been a commitment to quality 22-minute comedic storytelling, and it’s been far too long since the show has consistently valued story over its own confusing brand of politics.
South Park’s unprecedented (and insane) production schedule creates an opportunity for the show to address current events more quickly than almost any other scripted endeavor. The problem is that for several seasons now, culminating in the wildly uneven and mostly tiresome season 23, South Park has struggled under the weight of expectations to address the political simply because it can.
Yes, there is no better way to bring a conversation about entertainment to a more abrupt halt than by bringing up the “P” word. But we must acknowledge that all art is political to an extent. From Dora the Explorer all the way up through Watchmen, nothing exists in a vacuum. Every piece of art is composed by an artist or artists that bring their perspective, informed by the politics of their time, to the piece.
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are politically-conscious individuals and their art is always going to reflect that. On a traditional political compass, they’re probably be best described as libertarians, believing in both the freedom of the free market and the individual. But more often in practice their opinions can be summed up with “fuck everything.”
As he often did, Roger Ebert diagnosed the duo’s ideology fairly concisely in his review of Team America: World Police, saying:
I wasn’t offended by the movie’s content so much as by its nihilism. At a time when the world is in crisis and the country faces an important election, the response of Parker, Stone and company is to sneer at both sides — indeed, at anyone who takes the current world situation seriously. They may be right that some of us are puppets, but they’re wrong that all of us are fools, and dead wrong that it doesn’t matter.
Rog was right on in identifying Stone and Parker’s nihilism in Team America. A belief in nothing is a perspective that prevails through much of their work. But while they may not believe in anything else, Parker and Stone do believe in story.
The pair is devoted to the three-act story structure and they understand that every good tale is a follows a certain Joseph Campbellian rhythm. That may sound a bit heady for writers of such crassness as “Uncle Fucker,” but watch the video below in which Parker and Stone present their story ideology to class of very shocked (and very mid-2000s) NYU students to better understand their commitment.
Parker and Stone say that if the words “and then” can be applied between any two story beats, then something has gone wrong. Each moment of a story must flow into the other. There has to be a “therefore” or “but” after every beat to ensure that a story remains a story and not a mishmash of references and jokes. It’s through that perspective that Parker and Stone’s disdain to the “random” humor like joke factory Family Guy makes more sense. To them, story is king.
Despite its baffling politics, Team America tells a complete and functional tale. That’s by design, of course, as Parker and Stone were parodying Michael Bay-style explosion movies in which the hero triumphs over evil. But in satirizing the concept, they still follow all the relevant story beats. There are no “and thens” in Team America. Nor are there any in the duo’s beloved musical The Book of Mormon, a bildungsroman of two Mormon boys becoming two Mormon men in Uganda.
That same belief in story applies to Stone and Parker’s first work. Even when South Park doesn’t take a discernible stance one way or another on a political issue (which it very frequently does not), the presence of the issue is often deployed in the service of a story. The best episodes of South Park are shocking, yes, but also charmingly old fashioned in their approach to story.
That’s why it’s been so baffling to have so many episodes late in the show’s run where the political issue or current event at play seems like a spiritual “and then” to the main story at hand. Over the past few seasons the quality of storytelling has waned as the show introduces current events only seemingly out of a sense of duty to its unique production schedule and not because it meaningfully complements their story.
To be fair, South Park does deserve credit for expressing restraint in addressing some current events…or rather the current event. Parker and Stone were early adopters in realizing that satire had all but been defeated by reality with the Trump presidency. In turn they’ve used Mr. Garrison, the show’s cypher for Trump, sparingly and in the process have put aside a character that has been around since the show’s beginning just to better serve the story and not overindulge in politics.
They’ve also demonstrated a willingness to address previous episodes that they now believe took their nihilistic leanings too far. Season 22’s “It’s Time to Get Cereal” is something of a mea culpa for their earlier lampooning of climate change and a dweeby Al Gore’s singular pursuit of the mythical “Manbearpig.” In it Al Gore returns to deliver a righteous “I told you so” and the kids must acknowledge that Manbearpig is indeed a threat.
“We just felt like, of all of our episodes, that one has not aged very well,” Stone told The Hollywood Reporter. “I always felt like if we were going to rewrite that or comment on it or atone, whatever you want to call it, it’s in kind. In other words, we didn’t want to say in some interview, ‘Well, we don’t feel so great about that episode.’ It doesn’t feel as good as ‘Fuck that, we’ll do a whole two-parter.’”
But “Manbearpig” moments have been few and far between in the show’s latest season, as the show once again substitutes current events in place of original stories. South Park season 23 has been made up of several smaller spinoff arcs within the show. The first, “Tegridy Farms,” runs from episode 1 “Mexican Joker” through episode 6 “Season Finale” and follows Marsh family patriarch Randy as he tends to his weed business and becomes a bigger and bigger asshole. Episodes 7 through 9 have all been self-contained and presented as different “shows” such as “PC Babies,” “Something for the Ladies,” and “The Scott Malkinson Show.”
Though these episodes address real life issues such as China’s massive influence in the entertainment industry, ICE detention centers, marijuana legalization, transgender athletes, the streaming wars, and more, South Park has little meaningful to say any of them. That disinterested, at times anarchic, spirit has often worked for the show when it can present a funny story alongside with it. But divorced from that, it becomes unappealing.
Randy isn’t a compelling enough protagonist to make any of the Tegridy Farms installments work. At best his story is the further descent of a very stoned man into oblivion. But more often than not, it’s just an excuse for Parker and Stone to make themselves laugh at Randy’s increasingly drawn out pronunciation of “teeegriddy weeded.”
The story revolving around transgender athletes is seemingly only a vehicle for the show to introduce its version of “Macho Man” Randy Savage, rather than a sincere exploration of the issue. The end result is an episode that rehashes tired arguments from over a decade ago rather than bringing a new approach to the table. That’s particularly unfortunate as just five seasons ago South Park did bring sincerity and a new approach to the hilarious, gross, and still entirely novel Lorde-centric satire “The Cissy.”
Waiting for sincerity in South Park’s approach to politics at times feels like a pretty fruitless endeavor. If anything, South Park’s politics could be best described as “the sincere expression of insincerity.” But when there’s not an investment of sincerity or interest in story either, that lack of a meaningful perspective becomes especially bothersome. This batch of episodes have often been guilty of the “random” humor that Parker and Stone seemed to so strongly disdain because the humor is oft derived from the absurdity of staged political situations rather than allowing those absurd situations to develop naturally through the plot.
But back to the diarrhea.
South Park can still work when it puts its characters and story first. That’s what’s made the show’s two most recent installments so encouraging. Both episode 8 “Turd Burglars” and episode 9 “Basic Cable” feature the show’s unclear politics (how do Parker and Stone feel about streaming over cable and gut bacteria transplants? Couldn’t tell you!) and gross out humor, but both of those elements are presented in a way that serves the plot and enhances the humor.
The women of South Park don’t just puke and shit all over a fancy restaurant because the creators think it’s funny (though to be clear: it is), they do it because their own personal jealousies have led them to DIY poop injections to become healthier. Scott Malkinson doesn’t move heaven and earth to get his dad to subscribe to Disney+ because that’s what little boys do, he does it because he’s hopelessly in love with the new girl at school who has diabetes just like him.
There is no more tiresome scold move in all of artistic criticism than to request that a show, movie, or any other piece of art “tone down the politics.” Art always reserve the right to be political. Anything else would be dishonest. South Park, however, presents a unique case. The show doesn’t necessarily need to “tone down the politics” because its politics have always been unclear.
What it needs to do, and has done in its two most recent episodes, is recapture its love of story. As many have already argued, the show is at its best when telling stories about dumb, vulgar children and their many dumb, vulgar misconceptions of an already dumb, vulgar world. There is always room for politics, current events, and exploration of our modern values within each episode of South Park. But those elements have to be “therefores” or “buts.” No more “and thens.”