‘South Park’ slips into the surreal

A strange new season

Like most people watching TV, when last week’s “South Park”  episode aired Wednesday, Oct. 26, at 10 p.m., I was watching our country’s most recent presidential debate instead. And like most people watching the debate, I wasn’t watching because I wasn’t sure who I was voting for; I was watching mostly for the potential of spectacle, and maybe a little bit to cheer my candidate on.

While the debate wasn’t as surreal as the town hall iteration, I still saw—on live TV—a presidential candidate express doubt over whether he’d accept the outcome of the election. I also heard the same candidate use the word “bigly” and call the opposition a “nasty woman.”

If I had been watching the new “South Park”  episode—the fifth this season—I would have seen takes on both Trump’s sexism and his assertion that the election is “rigged.” The episode plays Trump’s sexism as an intentional and successful way of tanking the election.

Previous episodes have shown Mr. Garrison, who has been the Trump surrogate since last season, failing to make gaffes bad enough to sway voters against him. This time the gaffes do their job, and the election being “rigged” is Mr. Garrison’s excuse for his incompetence.  His supporters, unlike Trump’s base, do not accept his excuse, and send Mr. Garrison running back to “South Park.” Watching it the morning after the debate, I realized the reaction of Garrison’s constituency makes the world of “South Park”  a little saner than our own. 

This provokes the question, of course, whether or not Trump can really be satirized in a way that provokes our thoughts and feelings more than reality does. The answer is probably not, but “South Park”  is making a better attempt than most, and the twentieth season is worth watching. Unlike the self-congratulating satire exemplified by Andy Borowitz’s columns and found everywhere else, “South Park”  manages to reflect at least some of the disillusionment inflicted on us by this election cycle.

After escaping his supporters Mr. Garrison finds himself attempting to teach his fourth grade class again, in a scene that is an amusing reminder of just how far “South Park”  has gone to place its characters in the world outside of the town. It is one of the many side effects of the series’ reliance on continuity.

Last season there seemed to be a critical consensus that the continuity was a good way to reinvigorate a TV show 19 seasons in, but that it also led to some weaker, plot-heavy episodes that were too expansive to be sharp satire, and too concerned with the outside world to take advantage of the show’s characters.

As someone who has grown up with “South Park,” I missed the way satire came out of the lives of fourth grade boys in a more organic way, and missed episodes when the show wasn’t a satire at all. For the most part in previous seasons, the outside world would come to “South Park”  or it wouldn’t come at all, and the show would fall back on its foundation—really good, character-driven absurd comedy. Of course that was not always the case, as the boys have had their hand in at least a few global catastrophes, but “South Park”  had never tried to be mirror to our world in such a direct way before last season. Since then the town has been the center of the world.

Fortunately there is a smart counter to the idea that “South Park”  cannot outdo reality, and that this format would only worsen that weakness: if there was a time when a ridiculous, globe-spanning conspiracy plot made sense for “South Park,” that time would be now. The weird enormity of the plot seems more suited to an America that, especially on a macro-level, feels profoundly out of balance. Sometimes the format seems too off-kilter, but it also has allowed for the show to connect cultural phenomena in surprising ways.  I’ll reserve judgement on blaming J.J. Abrams for Donald Trump, but I look forward to watching it play out.

Whatever you feel about the show’s format, “South Park” has managed to fit in some close-to-home moments that still add to the satire, and they remain the best moments of the show. Among them is a scene built on an earlier episode’s commentary on the national anthem. I do not want to spoil it, but it involves Butters leading the boys in an extreme display of men’s rights activism. In another highlight, the boys brutally destroy all of Cartman’s electronics, effectively taking him off social media and effectively killing Cartman as we know him.

Since that early episode, Cartman has found a girlfriend and become completely soft, a parody of insular liberalism amid the chaos. Among all of this season’s more political points, I am most interested in seeing the old Eric Cartman, one of the best characters in TV history, get resurrected.

That being said, if Trump somehow wins this election, I trust “South Park’s” cultural intelligence enough that the following episode might be the only thing I look forward to in the next week.