Back with new targets to taunt in their crosshairs of cultural commentary, Trey Parker and Matt Stone returned with ten episodes for their eighteenth season of South Park, which just concluded on Comedy Central in the UK.
Warning: Mild spoilers follow!
Opting for an experimental style of season-long continuity, 18 sparked a flair of freshness into the series following a few faintly recollectable seasons before it. Serialised running jokes and cross-episode references become apparent just a few episodes in, and provide the show with another strong comedic element. As a whole, these connections certainly added a new and welcome dimension that made watching all ten installments chronologically rewarding, if only in a superficial sort of way.
However, this new structural trial was not absent of error. While maintained well in the contained continuity of its ten episodes, Season 18 continued the trend of some forgettable 20-minute week-fillers from recent years, thus not making the most of the overarching serialisation as the individual episodes within didn’t give the new approach much to work with.
Making a slow and mostly forgettable start, not much can be said of the first couple of episodes, “Go Fund Yourself” and “Gluten Free Ebola”, besides a few fleeting chuckles. The mockery of the Washington Redskins controversy presented some promise in the first, but really didn’t achieve much, other than set the tone for a season stuffed with episodes with promising premises that failed to evolve satisfactorily. Episode two then prevented itself from becoming a total distant memory by introducing a character that’d remain relevant all season long, Randy’s alter ego: music artist Lorde.
South Park then found some familiar sense of satirical sagacity with “The Cissy”, one of the season’s only breakout episodes. Cartman’s annoyance over the overcrowded boys’ bathroom at school leads to him claiming he is “transginger”, so that he can use the girls’ instead. Causing uproar, the school negotiate a special, tranquil toilet exclusively for Cartman’s uncertain gender identity. Parker and Stone’s silver tongues tastefully open into a talk about transgender issues, making a confident commentary on the increasing difficulty in defining and labelling individuals in an age plagued with political correctness.
“The Cissy” was however, an anomaly, with the follow-up “Handicar” contending for the worst episode of the entire series against Season 4’s “Pip” and 16’s “I Should Have Never Gone Ziplining”, with Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman all absent so that Timmy could relish in the success of his automotive service. It’s difficult to even venture a guess what the creators were going for here. An attempt to produce a sense of nostalgia with a Wacky Races competition was redundant by time it was reached in the episode, an episode reeking of absurd randomness even by the standards of South Park.
“The Magic Bush” covered a lot of ground, primarily hovering around issues of privacy following the celebrity photo leaks, with a hilarious hairy subplot to combine for a bronze medal-winning episode. Cartman’s twisted logic somehow justifies living in a surveillance state, with the eventual moral manifesting to comment on how we ought to take responsibility for our own digital footprints rather than blaming the technology that assists us in taking steps forward. Next, well, other than wandering yet another step backwards in quality, the less said about “Freemium Isn’t Free”, the better.
At this midway point during the season, with the exception of “The Cissy”, it became clear upon reflection that South Park had been feeling hollow in Parker and Stone’s copious reliance on making references to topical and at times even untopical issues and popular culture. Consequently, there was a reluctance to revel in the best attraction of their show: four core kids in a town full of crazy. Then, out of nowhere, came a golden episode seven, “Grounded Vindaloop”…
While lampooning virtual reality dealies, “Grounded Vindaloop” managed to strike the delightful balance between parody and its core characters, a blend that had been wavering throughout almost all of the previous episodes. The multi-layered narrative of entering and exiting different realities of the four boys, and Butters, was ironically the most grounded plot of the season, and also by far the smartest, with a technological pastiche of cinema, including references to The Matrix, Total Recall and a sprinkle of Inception.
A complete turnaround from “Handicar”, “Grounded Vindaloop” is now an instant classic of the series, containing the key components of a fun story, nonstop relevant jokes, sneaky satire and movie parodies, and a funny guest character in “Steve” from customer service, with the kids at the heart of it all, to make up a quintessential SP episode. Plus, the live action ending entered into a reality of utterly irresistible comedic charm and surprise.
Even with a classic episode complete, the remainder of Season 18 would be rendered pretty poorly. “Cock Magic” was awkwardly unfunny, while the two-parter to finalise the mostly forgettable season was not nearly as epically grandiose as its attempts to be were. “#REHASH” and “#HappyHolograms” collectively brought together the season-long serialisation with Randy returning as Lorde, as well as references and characters from previous seasons, into a blockbuster marathon of conflicts between generational gaps.
In the episodes, Kyle is in disbelief that Ike is idolising online personalities, such as PewDiePie (the most subscribed to YouTuber and gamer who guest stars as himself in a good-natured appearance), instead of playing Xbox with him. Kyle realises a generational distance is brewing between himself and his brother, and so aims to bring back his notion of traditional family culture, all the while others wish to only further the perceived decline in trending cultural tastes, including the exceedingly annoying Cartman Brah and Lorde’s producer.
What initially felt like a genuine self-referential expression of their show’s place in contemporary culture, comparable with Season 15’s “You’re Getting Old”, Parker and Stone’s final two installments of the season instead became a cluster of political/social/cultural references, from the celebration and pitfalls of celebrities, racial tensions in the US and more, overshadowing the generational premise and losing any credibility or enjoyability.
In the end, Season 18 is unfortunately one of the weakest of South Park, with just two or three standout episodes and a couple of shoddy ones, with the rest feeling a little “meh” in the middle, as they all came together in a less than epic climax for the finale.
Serialisation proved a promising exercise in the experimentation of form for South Park, but just requires much more consistently better episodes in order to be stretched to its full potential. So it would be good to see trialled again and improved upon, with a greater focus on connecting stories about its townspeople rather than trying to be overly topical to current events and trends, in order to achieve a productive balance between its commentary and community that has been such a successful remedy for the show over the years.
It feels appropriate to conclude on a quote from Kyle’s campaign to keep the family living room alive, poetically heard in the opening of “#Happy Holograms”: “It’s the holiday season, but the good times are ending. Because what matters most isn’t what’s good, it’s what’s trending.”