[This is a review of the South Park season 19 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
For longtime fans of Comedy Central's hilariously irreverent animated series South Park, fall is always an exciting time of year. First, there's the realization that the unequivocal king of cultural satire is back on television for 10 all-new episodes, but most of the excitement really comes form the opportunity to see what trending -- and often divisive -- culturally-relevant topic series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have selected as the season's first satirical target. Coming into last night's season 19 premiere, they certainly had several good ones to choose from, and while they took jabs at a few subjects of recent headlines, they hit their main target squarely, emphatically and with plenty of comedic authority (or, as Cartman would say, "authoritah!") in 'Stunning and Brave.'
However, interestingly enough, the premiere took a slightly different route in reaching that target than a typical South Park episode. Normally decisively one-sided in its approach to lampooning a particular group, the series creators took a little time for self-reflection at the beginning of the episode. As South Park Elementary's new head honcho, P.C. Principal, is introduced as Principal Victoria's successor at a school assembly, he quickly points out all of the townspeople's wrongdoings over the years, saying, "When I Googled the name of your town, I couldn't believe all the things you've gotten away with!" Of course, some of those transgressions include the use of offensive slurs and racial stereotypes. Throughout the episode, several characters even talk of changing their ways, and of growing up, but was South Park really ready to go politically correct?
That was certainly the end goal of the town's new principal. The most intense and extreme enforcer of political correctness, P.C. Principal's agenda is made quite clear as he begins handing out excessive detention punishments for comments that could be construed as offensive. Even seemingly innocuous stances are subject for P.C. policing, including Kyle's dissent to the consensus opinion that Caitlyn Jenner is a hero. At this point, it's obvious that the episode is satirizing the P.C. police more than political correctness itself, but no matter what side of the P.C. fence you land on, it's hard to deny the belly laughs that are created by the episode's ultimately successful satirical approach.
And that approach is ingeniously built on personifying the idea of political correctness in a central antagonist who -- despite being firmly against discrimination -- is portrayed as an overly-aggressive, testosterone-jacked "brah." Of course, the irony of this social justice warrior and his followers -- who later include Randy -- comes from the fact that he'll resort to physical violence to literally beat the intolerance out of bullies like Cartman, who use the word "spokesman" instead of the P.C.-friendly and gender-equal "spokesperson." While pointedly on-the-nose, this humor is undeniably effective and staying in South Park's comedic wheelhouse.
The episode also plays to another one of the show's strengths in utilizing its characters well. While in familiar roles, Randy and Kyle have some of the episode's standout moments as the gullible buffoon joining the principal's P.C. fraternity and as the staunchly defiant child fighting against P.C. pressure, respectively. Randy's moments come with a funny recurring gag involving him defending assigned missions to "check someone's privilege" in an embarrassingly hungover state, while Kyle hilariously points out -- as he has many times -- that Cartman is actually the only legitimate bigot in the group.
While the episode stays on point for the majority of its 22-minute runtime, it does stray slightly at times to poke fun at recent scandals such as the NFL's "Deflategate" and the criminal case involving former Subway
spokesman spokesperson Jared Fogle. Some of these jokes are amusing, but the episode is truly at its best when focusing its commentary on the overabundance of political-correctness mongering in today's culture.
However, at the end of the episode, its main message and theme become somewhat muddied, as Kyle finds the only way to settle the fight between Cartman and the P.C. frat is to give in to political correctness. In a defeatist way, the episode is saying that sometimes political correctness wins the day, but also asserts comedians should fight for their voice and feel free to express their point of view at the same time. As frequent targets of controversy themselves, Stone and Parker know how exhausting it can be in the crosshairs of P.C. crusaders, but are we to believe that South Park would compromise when it comes to what it thinks is funny? We would certainly hope not.
Considering political correctness can often be the death knell for comedy, it's still impressive how South Park was able to wring so many laughs out of the subject while making a valid argument against P.C. mongers in its premiere. Then again, when looking back at the comedy's track record, this is something the series has done week-in and week-out. Hopefully, there's more of the same in store for the season's nine remaining episodes.
South Park season 19 continues next Wednesday @10pm on Comedy Central.