Friday, June 17, 2011

Is "South Park" Growing Up?

Stan (Trey Parker) is disenchanted in mid-season finale of South Park, "You're Getting Old." Photo courtesy of

South Park has always possessed the uncanny ability to combine serious social commentary, pointed satire and juvenile toilet humor into a brilliant show. This ability has turned what could have been nothing more than a crudely animated parody of sitcoms about children into one of the most popular and influential television shows in recent memory, to the point where South Park was recently voted the best animated show of all time by readers. It even beat out long-running stalwart The Simpsons for the title.

Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's ability to blend juvenile toilet humor and big ideas was distilled perfectly in the mid-season finale of the fifteenth season, "You're Getting Old." The episode centered around Stan (Parker), who has just turned ten, as he becomes increasingly jaded and cynical. Eventually, Stan begins to think that everything is literally "shitty," as he hears music he previously liked as fart sounds and the penguins in a trailer for Mr. Popper's Penguins appear as turds. His attitude toward life eventually alienates him from all his friends, including his closest friend Kyle (Stone).

At the same time Stan is becoming more cynical, Randy (also voiced by Parker) is determined to appear cool to his son, and begins performing music that consists of him "shitting his britches" (in the words of another character) into a microphone as he strums his guitar. Just as Stan's cynicism comes between he and Kyle, Randy's ridiculous scheme estranges him from his wife, Sharon, and the couple ultimately gets a divorce at the end of the episode.

Randy and Sharon's divorce and Stan's move to a new house, as well as Sharon's rant to Randy that "the same shit just happens over and over - then in a week it all just resets until it happens again" was interpreted by many worried fans as a stealth finale for South Park, particularly given that Parker and Stone are currently enjoying success with their (Tony Award-winning!) Broadway show The Book of Mormon and have publicly described the stress of juggling South Park and the musical. However, as the AV Club pointed out, Parker and Stone are still under contract until 2013, so we have a couple of years until we need to worry.

"You're Getting Old" may not have been a series finale, but it is still one of the best episodes of South Park I have ever seen. Scratch that - it's one of the best episodes of any TV show that I've ever seen. The show dealt beautifully with themes of growing up, of alienation and the toll that unnecessary cynicism can take on people and relationships, and of the desperate yearning for youth that besets many adults. The closing montage, set to Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," was simple, lovely and unbearably sad (not to mention a much better dramatic closing montage than generally appears in serious dramas, and a better use of "Landslide" than Gwyneth Paltrow's version on Glee). I almost cried while watching it. I seriously almost cried while watching South Park. That is a phrase I never thought I would utter.

That Parker and Stone managed to address these themes so perfectly is an accomplishment in and of itself, one that very few TV shows can claim. The fact that they did it in an episode in which about half the dialogue was fart noises and managed to avoid jarring tonal shifts is even more impressive. However, the real question about this episode is whether this change will carry on and change the feel of the show, or whether the continuity will simple be reset when South Park comes back in the fall. There is evidence for both options. This is, after all, a show that spent the first five seasons repeatedly killing off the same character, only to have him return alive and unharmed in the next episode, and that history would indicate that the timeline will be reset.

There is also some indication that Parker and Stone would like to move beyond that era of the show, as evidenced by the explanation offered for Kenny's repeated deaths in last season's excellent Mysterion arc. The Mysterion episodes offered an early hint that Parker and Stone want to move beyond the episodic sitcom structure that South Park has traditionally followed; "You're Getting Old" strengthens that idea by directly criticizing (via Sharon) the lack of continuity that defines the sitcom.

I personally would like to see where a new set of circumstances could take South Park. I want to see how Randy and Sharon's divorce plays out, and whether Stan can manage to balance his cynicism with his childish innocence (innocence in terms of South Park being relative). However, I am sure that many other lovers of South Park don't want the show to change, and wish to see cutting satire and potty-mouthed kids every week. I understand that. I love the show as it is, and Parker and Stone are great at what they do. However, I suspect that they can do more, and I would love to see them try. I'll keep watching if the show simply reboots in the fall, and I'll surely keep laughing as well. That laughter, however, might be a little less heartfelt than before.

An added bonus for your viewing pleasure: I've been watching this performance of "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon on repeat for the last week. Parker and Stone are some talented guys.

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