When you live and die by topicality as Matt Stone and Trey Parker have for almost a decade, you get two episodes to open season 19 that provide a fascinating study into how this show is made.
After last week’s season premiere, some missed the point and felt that South Park made it seem as though political correctness was a bad thing, or the self-awareness of the first act was “invalidated” by the rest of the episode. Really, Caitlyn Jenner and the PC Principal’s insistence of using correct pronouns were afterthoughts in an episode about our outrage culture shouting over what should be an open dialogue when it comes to social issues. The episode acknowledged this is a show that has been and will continue to be un-PC, but did so without crossing any lines or making any promises.
The beauty of them “literally” having their first sit down for a season 19 brainstorm just weeks before the premiere as Parker told EW, is that their first episode can feel out the direction of the season. If fan reaction is overwhelmingly negative–despite a few dissenters, the premiere seemed to be well-received–they can pivot. If they hit the right vein, they could again explore a continuity that’s been a rare plot device throughout the series. Whether they intentionally held back from Caitlyn Jenner or the immediacy of the production process led to Matt and Trey answering critics in only six days time, “Where My Country Gone” put the PC Police on notice from beginning to end by finding the right balance between the character-driven storytelling of the early years and the topicality and continuity of recent years.
I may already be tired of typing those South Park buzzwords, but this was an episode that should be satisfying even for those who have been put off by the constant flavor of the week references and faux cameos. I’ve probably been one of the show’s biggest defenders over the last few seasons, but I recognize the hit or miss territory Matt and Trey are in. The issue with the premiere for me was it labored to finish the joke by the third act. But if political correctness is going to be the common thread of this season as our interaction with technology was the underlying theme of season 18, then maybe we should start looking at South Park as less of a one-off and more of a collective work.
Consider Mr. Garrison the politically incorrect artist. Along with Cartman, Mr. Garrison is their mouthpiece for intolerance, often using hyperbolic statements or blatant factual inaccuracies to mask what he perceives are character flaws based on his understanding of social norms. Through Garrison, we’ve learned about getting comfortable with our God-given bodies and that gay couples are just as capable of not breaking eggs as straight couples, amongst many other lessons that stained the South Park Elementary chalkboards.
Here, at least in the context of this episode, he’s simply the conduit for A) the argument that the previous episode was entirely one-sided and B) a big joke about Donald Trump. It’s vintage Garrison, who’s driven rich African Americans, Mexicans, and Persians out of South Park before, and has no problem driving our Canadian friends, buddies, and guys back north where they belong. We really get some wonderful stuff out of the Canadian plot, from subverting our expectations that this would be a Mexican conflict to again flipping the script by having Canada block Americans from crossing the border, to a Trump-like brash Canadian president.
For me, it was the simple jokes that made this episode a memorable one. The first line of the episode, from President Obama no less, was some cheeky pointed commentary on the internet outrage cycle: “Last week we were reminded that intolerance still exists in our country.”
Elsewhere, introducing Caitlyn Jenner to South Park lore was exactly what we thought they were going to do last week. They did just enough to avoid the WOO WOOs by taking Jenner one-step further, mostly just skewering the lawsuits and potential charges from a fatal car accident she was involved in. Parker said since they had already tackled the topic of transitions in the past, they wouldn’t do it again. Jokes like “hot” and “cold” Cosby and fucking (raping) the Canadians to death, tasteless as there are, aren’t far off from other depictions of rape (Indiana Jones) we’ve seen on the show. However, I don’t think it was necessary to get to where the episode wanted to go, and a puzzling conclusion to an otherwise tightly assembled half-hour.
South Park’s next episode will be its 260th. A lot has changed since 1997. There’s no longer a counter in the bottom corner of the screen for every time Mr. Garrison says “shit” or “fag.” It’s morphed into a show that relies on timeliness and prides itself on its ability to deconstruct social norms. Yet for Matt and Trey to do anything beyond pay lip service–let’s say clean up their act–to all obscene displays of filth from these characters over the years would be the real invalidation of their work.