South Park: Revisiting Its Risky But Successful Serialized Season 20

The flexibility of South Park made serialization a surprise move that became a welcome storytelling device.

Unlike some shows that have been on for so long they’ve been completely sapped of all joy and creativity and are called The Simpsons, South Park has gone through numerous high and lows. It’s able to do this because it established early on how flexible it was. When you destroy your show’s setting regularly, when you kill one of your lead characters regularly, when one of your protagonists is revealed to be a sadist who makes someone eat his own parents, when your pilot episode is about aliens coming to town and implanting a satellite dish in a kid’s butt, the message is clear: anything goes.

It’s a testament to South Park’s flexibility that, 20 years in, they’ve pulled off one of their best seasons ever by completely reinventing their storytelling method. Season 18 flirted with serialization; the first few episodes had plot threads that carried over from one to the next. Then Season 19 went all out with the concept, following a season-long story in which the town retooled itself, becoming more sophisticated (they got a Whole Foods) in order to better fit into a politically correct world. It was fun and exciting to watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone attempt something completely new, but it all led to a somewhat disappointing climax. Probably to do with the show’s seat-of-its-pants creative process, many of the plot threads petered out oddly (PC Principal is appearing in ads for some reason? And one girl is an ad come to life?? And PC Principal has to beat her up??? And the Whole Foods just unmoors itself and flies away at the end????).

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Season 20 dipped back into season-long serialization and, happily, this time pulled it off with flying colors. There’s that documentary, 6 Days to Air, that details the madcap, intense, weeklong process of creating a new South Park episode but I would love to learn how this process was (I assume) varied up for this season because the number of plots and themes that were juggled all the way through to the end—most of them satisfyingly so—is kind of staggering. I mean, I straight up forgot that early in the season Cartman had been having visions about Mars until they brought it back for the finale.

Now I’ll admit that this was not one of South Park’s funniest seasons, but that’s not the main draw for me at this point anyway. Comedically, South Park mainly trades in gross-out gags and a reliance on repeated phrases (‘member Chewbacca?), both of which have diminishing returns for me.

It was really the storytelling in Season 20 that did it for me. Trey and Matt already demonstrated an ability to utilize well the basic structure and tone of a Hollywood blockbuster with Team America: World Police. And I’m not sure it’s talked about much, but they’ve been refining this style on South Park for a while now. The result is that Season 20 is a solid, engaging, long-form techno-action-thriller about global warfare online and IRL.

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I believe Trey and Matt are fully aware of the Hollywood tropes they’ve gleefully adopted. Just listen to the bombastic score bolstering so many scenes or, hell, how about the fact that everything ended with a global crisis and a huge explosion? It’s kind of crazy, on reflection, that the filthy, absurdist South Park managed a season with gripping moments and episodes that concluded with cliffhangers that actually left me with that “Oh man, how are they gonna get out of this one?” feeling.

In addition to how it tells stories, South Park has evolved in how it addresses societal issues. The show is often criticized for its simplistic worldview, how it explains away most everything with “both sides are stupid.” But I’ve noticed a trend in criticism of the show as of late, which is that critics keep looking for “I learned something today” moments, but keep coming up empty. 

The fact of the matter is, South Park still makes fun of everyone and everything, but no longer seems to regard society with a nihilistic dismissiveness. More often, it seems to be acknowledging just how complicated the world is.

One of the running plots this season was about the harms of trolling, a topic which, if you’re familiar with the old South Park, you’d be excused for assuming they’d view as a stupid waste of time. It’s true that some of the goofiness of internet drama is highlighted by how, when Cartman’s forcibly removed from social media, everyone at school behaves as though he’s literally been killed. However, Gerald’s trolling is shown to have real-world consequences that aren’t really played for laughs. A girl is truly horrified that someone photoshopped a penis into her mom’s mouth. An Olympian commits suicide over the cruelty of the trolling she’s been on the receiving end of. South Park now is far more willing to explore these areas and leave us in confusing, grey areas, rather than to just assert that the right answer is to simply dismiss everything as stupid.

And it’s also worth noting that even South Park wasn’t so disaffected as to present Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as equally horrible. Yes, they joked about it still being a Turd Sandwich and Giant Douche situation and poked fun (deservedly so) at both candidates, but the show blatantly picked a side as Mr. Garrison (South Park’s stand-in for Trump) got closer and closer to the presidency and began actively campaigning against himself, urging people to vote for the more qualified candidate.

As a final note, something totally new Trey and Matt also went for was a complete subversion of Cartman’s character. They went with the novel idea of allowing him some happiness and made him act nice for a change. There have been long periods of South Park where everything was driven by Cartman’s villainous actions, so it again speaks to the show’s flexibility that Cartman could be understated and actually happy for almost an entire season and it turned out to be one of the funniest and most interesting arcs they’ve ever given the character.

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Admittedly, much of what I’ve talked about here is probably only truly impactful to those who have stuck it out for the entire series. For a show that’s changed so much, South Park is still very much for the fans. It’s always been strict about the continuity of its universe in the geekiest of ways, completely adherent to its nonsensical canon and never worried about being too weird for the uninitiated. I mean, in Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (a major studio release, I might remind you), Saddam Hussein is presented—without explanation—as having a flappy head and a voice that sounds like it’s not even trying to sound like the real Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, he’s dead (remember the film was released before the real-life Hussein had died) and living in Hell as Satan’s gay lover. Why? Because he showed up in an April Fool’s gag episode in a Terrence and Philip movie, in which he was killed by all of Canada farting at the same time.

This sort of weirdness continues in Season 20. The stand-in for Donald Trump is Mr. Garrison, but his rival in the election is Hillary Clinton because, well, Hillary has been in South Park before but Trump hasn’t and Mr. Garrison’s character arc has led him to this point where it makes plot-sense for him to become the Trump of the show. But this adherence to canon paired with a dedication to self-subversion is what made this season work so well. Why make Cartman happy and kind? Because, with what we know of how evil he’s been, it’s hilarious and interesting. Why serialize episodes? Because it’s not something they ever did in the past and it puts a totally new spin on a show we thought we had a comfortable familiarity with.

Trey and Matt appear to be indicating that this season is the end of the serialization experiment. As Kyle stated in the penultimate episode of Season 20, “We used to have a challenge and deal with it, then move onto the next one. Now we’ve just been dealing with trolling and internet stuff over and over, week after week, and I don’t know about you but I’m getting pretty sick of it!”

Even more blatant is the fact that the episode finale is titled “The End of Serialization as We Know It.” And that’s fine. This whole serialization thing is probably really hard to sustain. After all, some stuff did get lost by the wayside: the Member Berries and Caitlyn Jenner were nowhere to be seen in the last bunch of episodes and I imagine the shakeup of Trump actually winning the election (something even Trump himself didn’t anticipate) screwed with some of Trey and Matt’s plans for the season.

So, it was a lot of fun, but it’s okay with me if they’d prefer to switch back to self-contained episodes now. If anything defines South Park, it’s an unpredictability, a flexibility, a willingness to try different things.

A version of this story originally ran on December 9th, 2016 under the headline “Serialized South Park Season 20 Is One Of Its Best Ever.” It’s being repromoted ahead of the new season.