[This OPINION piece contains SPOILERS for South Park season 19.]
It's hard to believe that South Park recently concluded its 19th season. Thinking back to where the show began, its evolution over the years has been impressive to watch. What started as a lewd and crude comedy driven mainly by shock factor and its audaciousness in pushing the envelope has become (for a long while now) one of the smartest, topical, biting and thought-provoking comedies on television (although, the crude stuff is still very much alive and well). That ability to evolve and adapt has most certainly helped the South Park become the second longest-running animated series on TV (behind The Simpsons), but as season 19 proved, the show had even more adapting and evolving to do.
This year, co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker topped some big comedic ideas with a whole new layer of complexity by injecting season 19 with more episode-to-episode continuity than the series has ever seen. The season's more ambitious approach -- which featured a central theme around America's current climate of political-correctness -- certainly seemed to give the 10-episode run more weight. And with a tighter, more pointed and sharper focus, it even seemed like the show was becoming a real cultural talking point again. Some were calling season 19's serialized structure a reinvention and rejuvenation of the series, and while I agree with those sentiments to a degree, it's hard not to worry that the series is headed in a new direction that may ultimately handcuff the creative geniuses behind it.
Now, you could say that it's possible season 19 and its new structure was just a one-off experiment, sort of like when Archer decided to spend its fifth season in a new format that didn't really connect with the rest of the series. But do remember where South Park's season 19 finale left us -- hanging on PC Principal's declaration that the war against social injustice was only just beginning. This ending to the season certainly suggests that the show's landmark 20th campaign will pick up right where we left off -- with PC Principal staying on at South Park Elementary to battle those injustices, and with Garrison running for President (which will likely cause some conflict with the PC brethren of South Park).
Unless I'm forgetting something, this type of story continuity -- from one season to the next -- would be a first for South Park. But would that be all bad? Of course, there is the glass-half-full way to look at it, being that this season-to-season continuity could lead to a new and exciting method of storytelling for the show. But at the moment, the show becoming more serialized feels more like climbing into a box, instead of opening up a door to possibilities.
Maybe this feeling comes from watching nearly 300 episodes of a comedy that has rarely felt the need to progress any sort of overarching narrative (though, it has stretched stories to multi-part episodes occasionally). Instead, it's been able to firmly establish its world and its characters; and because those elements of the show are so well-defined at this point, South Park's creators can go anywhere with the setting, the scenario and the story to do what the show does best: make a statement while making us laugh. In past seasons, we've seen the show go from lampooning Jersey Shore one week to poking fun at the logic of Inception the next. Of course, with a serialized season focusing on one particular story or theme, and one particular viewpoint on one particular issue, this comedic nimbleness wouldn't be possible.
And that nimbleness is perhaps the show's greatest strength. As it stands, South Park's unique down-to-the-wire production schedule and original comedic voices (the creators and the characters) give the show the unprecedented ability to react and comment on current events and political issues almost in real time, so forcing the progression of a serialized story arc over this rare week-to-week opportunity would seem like a big mistake.
Of course, season 19 didn't entirely adhere to a single narrative, and there were even a few episodes not permeated by its anti-PC theme. In fact, some of the season's funniest episodes were the type of episodic one-offs we've come to love South Park for, including 'You're Not Yelping', which diverted the focus from political-correctness issues (though, there was the bit between Cartman and David), and instead made the self-important Internet foodies of the world the butt of its jokes. So, even though South Park may become fully serialized at some point, it should be noted that the show isn't there yet.
And even if South Park does become more reliant on story to drive its season forward in the future, it's possible that there may still be room for the topical humor the series has become famous for. We saw this balance in the season finale, 'PC Principal Final Justice', which included a pretty brilliant runner that both mocked the effectiveness of current gun control laws and also advocated for arming more everyday citizens. However, considering Stone and Parker surely had more to say on such a large and very relevant hot-button issue, we would have loved to see what they would have done with a full 22 minutes devoted to the topic. But instead, carrying the season's previously established story threads through proved to be more important, making us wonder if the serialized nature of the past few episodes created more missed opportunities than anything else.
While I thoroughly enjoyed season 19 on its own and many individual episodes within it, I simply can't subscribe to the idea that becoming more serialized is the path to South Park's ultimate salvation. For nearly two decades, the show has thrived on the freedom to tell the stories and make the points it has wanted to. And maybe the point about the danger of our culture's submission to corporate entities or PC pressure is important enough to Parker and Stone that it warrants a full season (or part of a season) of dedication to it. However, to fans who love the show for its ability and willingness to skewer multiple topics from multiple angles, the idea of a hefty, intense focus on one topic or story isn't nearly as appealing as 10 fresh singular episodes tackling whatever hot, relevant headlines hit the news this time next year.
What did you think of South Park season 19? And what do you want to see in show's 20th season? Do you see the show becoming more serialized? Let us know in the comments.