The Rise & Fall of South Park, Part 2
South Park in the Age of Trump
Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
Matt and Trey: Never Trumpers
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the presidential election, and the next evening, South Park had an episode about it. The episode titled “About Last Night . . .” featured Obama supporters celebrating his victory in the streets and McCain supporters commiserating their loss. It was quite a shock to see this episode. Did South Park really make a whole episode in less than twenty-four hours? Or did they make two episodes in advance, one in case of an Obama victory and one for a McCain victory?
Well, it turned out that they only made one episode. They were so sure of an Obama victory, South Park had no Plan B if McCain had won. It was an incredibly ballsy gamble, but it paid off, and only enhanced Matt and Trey’s reputation and credibility as the golden boys who could do no wrong.
South Park would later make similar gambles betting against Trump — and lose. Repeatedly.
Donald Trump announced his campaign for President on June 16, 2015, exactly three months before the debut of South Park’s nineteenth season. By that point, Matt and Trey were no longer youthful rebels but middle-aged family men, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. Their Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, alone reportedly grosses $19 million per month. I don’t know how much of that goes directly into their pockets, but I imagine it’s enough to make South Park a hobby by comparison, and will likely keep them rolling in cash long after South Park is off the air.
South Park was initially not optimistic about Trump’s chances. In fact, they were so certain that his campaign would be a flash in the pan that they thought they could wrap up the whole matter in one episode and be done with it.
The resulting episode was “Where My Country Gone?”, the second episode of the nineteenth season. When it aired, it was immediately clear that the golden duo had no understanding of what Trump or Trumpism were really about.
In the episode, South Park is flooded with refugees fleeing Canada. It turns out that a Trump-like populist has arisen, and that the people of Canada had elected him Prime Minister for no reason other than that they found him funny and enjoyed his outrageous antics. But once he was elected, it was a nightmare, and it wasn’t funny anymore. Hot take there, guys.
On top of this, this Canadian Trump had erected a wall to keep Americans from coming into Canada and raping their women. Nice false moral equivalence there, guys. Are you trying to insult my intelligence?
So convinced was South Park of Donald Trump’s defeat that they killed off the Canadian Trump before the end of the episode. No reference to Trump was made for the rest of the season.
“Where My Country Gone?” was the one blemish on a season that, in this writer’s opinion, was actually the show’s masterpiece.
While South Park had always had occasional story arcs extending over several episodes, beginning with the eighteenth season they began experimenting with season-long arcs, and they continued it into the following season as well. The arc began with the school getting a new principal, PC Principal. PC Principal is a muscular, fratboy “bro” type who is fanatical about political correctness.
Meanwhile, a Whole Foods store opens up in town, and the citizens of South Park acquire bourgeois hipster tastes. As the season progresses, the city of South Park, once a place of folksy charm, slowly gentrifies and descends into soulless SJW hipsterism. While South Park is hopelessly cucked on the National Question, when it comes to satirizing political correctness, few do it better. If you watch only one season of South Park, watch the nineteenth season, but skip “Where My Country Gone?”
However, that season would prove to be South Park’s victory lap. Fonzie was strapping on his water skis and getting ready for his big jump.
The nineteenth season ended in December 2015, and the show would not return until mid-September 2016, less than two months before the election. During the interim, Donald Trump defied all expectations by crushing the entire GOP primary field and securing the nomination. South Park, for once, had gotten it wrong.
You would have thought that during those nine months, the South Park chaps would have done some soul-searching, really digging down to try to understand what this whole Trump thing was about. Trumpism is a strange and complex beast, but Matt and Trey are bright guys and young enough dogs to learn new tricks.
Well, if you thought that, you thought wrong.
With their twentieth season, South Park initiated another season-long story arc. Having already killed off Trump (sort of) in “Where My Country Gone?”, Mr. Garrison, a nativist and populist who was running for President became South Park’s new Trump avatar. It was clear early on that South Park was banking on a Trump loss, and that the season’s storyline was progressing towards a Trump-defeat climax.
The season began with strange, talking berries called “member berries” that appeared all over South Park and said random, nostalgic things like, “Remember the Bionic Man? Remember Chewbacca? Remember when you were safe? Remember when marriage was between a man and a woman?” This was meant to be South Park’s explanation for Trumpism: that it was all based on nostalgia. Just people pining for the good ol’ days and trying to revive a long-gone past. South Park clearly believes (or at least wants you to believe) that this is foolish. “Times are changing, and you’ve gotta change with ’em, maaaaaaaaaan.”
This is easy for the makers of South Park to say, because no matter what the demographics of America look like in the real world, you can be sure that the fictional town of South Park will continue to be over ninety-eight percent white. Comedy Central isn’t dumping Somali refugees in South Park. There is no forced diversity in South Park. No Section 8 housing. And there are the same number of people-of-color children at South Park Elementary as there were twenty years ago. It is Matt and Trey, not us Trumpians, who are living in a bubble.
And in that season, South Park did something it had never done before, despite having been through four previous elections: it endorsed a candidate for President, going all out for Hillary. They didn’t do this directly, but through their Trump avatar, Mr. Garrison.
As the season progressed, Mr. Garrison realized that he had no idea what he was doing and that if he were elected, he would be unable to fulfill his duties as President. As a result, he began trying to throw the election. He pleaded with his supporters (and the South Park audience) to vote for Hillary, since he would be incompetent. When that didn’t work, he began saying inflammatory things to alienate them, but instead, his base began praising him for his honesty. Eventually, he said some things about women that disgusted people (an allusion to the famous Pussygate tape), and it looked like he was certain to lose after all. Everything appeared to be going according to plan for South Park.
The election was on November 8, and a new South Park was scheduled for November 9. Matt and Trey were certain that they could repeat the same feat that they had eight years earlier, with “About Last Night . . .”.
But then, Donald Trump won. South Park had gotten it wrong again.
South Park in the Era of Trump
Having once again made no contingency plans in the event of a Republican victory, South Park‘s writers were forced to do a hasty rewrite. The result was the November 9 episode “Oh, Jeez,” which actually was banged together in twenty-four hours. Not only that, but there were three remaining episodes of the season that required major rewrites, as they all involved subplots about Mr. Garrison dealing with his election loss. South Park hobbled on, but the rest of the season was unremarkable.
South Park returned in September 2017, eight months into Trump’s presidency, intent on being sore losers. In their twenty-first season, South Park was ready to go to war not just with Trump, but with populism, the Alt Right, and ultimately, White America itself. And it was in that year, mad with Trump Derangement Syndrome and drunk on bourgeois complacency, that South Park at last jumped the shark.
I will discuss four episodes from that season as examples of South Park’s disgraceful fall.
This was the season premiere, and it came out one month after Charlottesville. Hopes were high that South Park would finally do an episode “about the Alt Right.” While the episode uses some imagery from the Unite the Right rally, it was not exactly “about the Alt Right” per se, but about populism and nativism in general. And the whole episode is one, big straw man argument.
The plot is so stupid and dishonest that I’m not even going to get into it. The TL;DR is that nativists are dumb, automation is taking people’s jobs away, we should stop blaming immigrants for our problems, and it’s your fault for not going to college. That’s their message to populists.
I don’t understand why anyone thinks automation is an argument for immigration. It’s a powerful argument against immigration. If humans are losing jobs to machines, then why are we bringing in more humans? This is nonetheless a common liberal talking point. Automation is a completely separate issue from runaway immigration.
It was a weak attempt at avoiding the real issues involved with immigration, as well as the real issues affecting people’s lives. “Well, it’s not just the immigrants! It’s automation, too!” is just a dodge. And really, it is an argument worthy of Chewbacca.
The show also portrayed “the Alt Right” as a Boomer movement more like the Tea Party. They used the working-class “they took our jobs” guys from the “Goobacks” episode to represent Trumpian populists. But Unite the Right’s participants were primarily millennials, and Trump is wildly popular with young Republicans.
This seemed like a missed opportunity, seeing that they already had a racist and anti-Semitic character. It would have been more realistic and accurate to have an episode about Cartman joining the Alt Right. But instead, they produced a very dishonest episode. South Park‘s makers either don’t understand populism, or else they are blatantly misrepresenting it.
2. “Franchise Prequel”
In this episode, South Park took on fake news. Coon and Friends, the South Park children’s pretend superhero group, are trying to get a deal with Netflix for a movie series, but Butters, in his Professor Chaos persona, is posting fake news about them on Facebook and ruining their reputation.
This episode made some questionable assumptions about “fake news.” One was the idea that fake news is effective or actually changes anyone’s mind. Powerful people are rarely taken down by fake news. Bullshit about powerful people will usually get debunked quickly. I’m sure that this debunking costs the Left some resources, but I don’t think there is any real evidence to suggest that fake news is decisive. As far as I can tell, fake news plays to people’s confirmation bias. Conservative fake news is porn for low-IQ conservatives, and vice versa. Both the Left and the Right can see through each other’s fake news.
Russia and Putin are also thrown into this episode, scolding the kids for distributing fake news in America. Oh, dear. South Park had drunk the Russia Kool-Aid. Now it was getting embarrassing. There was also a subplot involving the kids trying to get a movie deal which was kind of funny, but other than that, this is New York Times-level stuff. Very sad.
3. “Hummels and Heroin”
This is South Park’s take on the opiate epidemic. It revolves around senior citizens in an old folks’ home selling their drugs to entertainers who keep overdosing on them.
Senior citizens selling their drugs is a real thing, and a real problem. But it is also a minor issue in the overall opiate crisis, which is much more complex. A far more pressing issue is the heroin being brought in by Mexican gangs. No one disputes the link between heroin and the Mexican drug cartels. But South Park tries to avoid the immigration issue again by saying, “Well, old white people are selling opiates, too!” South Park will do anything to avoid having an honest conversation about immigration.
Interestingly, this episode features a parody rap song by one Killer Mike, whose Wikipedia page describes him as an “American rapper, actor, and activist.” Uh, oh . . . Let’s scroll down to the activism section. “Mike is an outspoken social activist focusing on subjects including social equality, police brutality, and systemic racism.” Okay, I think we know where this is going. The guys who pioneered anti-SJWism are now hanging out with SJWs. After the Ferguson fiasco, South Park gave us “Naughty Ninjas,” which was quite sympathetic to the police. And now we have this idiot from Black Lives Matter . . .
4. “Splatty Tomato”
“Splatty Tomato” was South Park’s final betrayal. In it, the show’s journey towards the dark side was completed, and it was where they finally went full-on anti-white. It had been brewing for a while, but at last, here came the long-awaited shark jump.
Like most of the episodes of that season, the plot is stupid, and doesn’t even make sense as a metaphor. In it, President Garrison, South Park’s Trump avatar, has gone wild and is on the loose in South Park, scaring the children because “Orange Man Bad.” The people of South Park want Mr. Garrison to leave, but one family, the Whites, is actively helping him and undermining all attempts to have him exiled.
The patriarch of the White family is portrayed as a stereotypical Angry White Man, who Matt and Trey seem to be using to represent Trump’s white loyalists. He’s somewhere halfway between Archie Bunker and Michael Douglas in Falling Down. He makes a lot of angry complaints on behalf of white people which sound perfectly reasonable to my ears, but South Park makes no attempt to address the merits of his grievances or to offer any counter-arguments. You’re just supposed to think that the guy is a dick for having any grievances at all.
Get it? If you didn’t, the TL;DR on this episode was, “Orange man bad and everyone wants him gone, but white people won’t stop supporting him! Stop supporting him, white people.” South Park, which was once one of the most unique voices on television, had gone full NPC. I can’t go on. Thinking about this episode just makes me angry.
In promoting the current season, its twenty-second, South Park released the hashtag #CancelSouthPark, and there is some debate as to whether that is Matt and Trey’s sincere desire, or merely an ironic marketing gimmick.
Maybe they really do want out. Maybe Matt and Trey want to be put out of their misery. They don’t want to be seen as giving up. They don’t want it to look like they’re quitting because Trump beat them. Being cancelled would allow them to save face.
Maybe Matt and Trey have figured out that the future belongs to one of two groups of people: the white populists that South Park hates, or the SJWs that South Park also hates, and the center will not hold.
Or perhaps, having burned their bridges with the conservatives who were the core of their audience, they are cynically trying to bring back old fans who might return to say goodbye to an old friend with whom they had lost touch. Like how bands declare their next tour to be their last, even though they are back again a few years later.
Well, if that was the plan, it clearly failed. The ratings for this season are at a series low.
In South Park’s defense, they have corrected course slightly this year by not talking about Trump at all. Matt and Trey have finally figured out that going after Trump was destroying their ratings.
However, they did have a two-episode story arc (“Time to Get Cereal” and “Nobody Got Cereal?”) where they officially reversed their position on climate change and revealed that ManBearPig is real after all. Now, I do not have strong opinions on climate change, but South Park’s climate skepticism was one of the big things that helped get them street cred with conservatives. They are clearly willing to lose more Right-wing fans. Maybe they are trying to get canceled.
South Park is not yet completely unwatchable. It’s certainly not as bad as The Simpsons was at its worst. South Park can still shine when it sticks to its specialties: PC and celebrity culture. “The Problem with a Poo,” an episode about people using social media while on ambien, was quite good. But overall, this season has been well below average. The magic is gone.
Matt and Trey remind me of Steve McQueen’s character in The Cincinnati Kid. In that film, McQueen plays The Kid, a hotshot stud poker player. The Kid has the magic touch and never loses. Throughout the film, a black kid occasionally challenges The Kid to a gambling game involving tossing a quarter. The Kid accepts, and wins every time. The Kid is the best card player in New Orleans, and his talents are such as to attract the attention of the national champion, an old and experienced gentleman card-player known as The Man (played by Edward G. Robinson). The Kid’s friend Shooter warns him about The Man. Losing to The Man does not mean that you just lose your money. The Man psychologically breaks you. Shooter once thought that he was the best stud card player in the world, but was never as good again after playing against The Man.
The Kid and The Man have their final showdown. The Man emerges triumphant, and The Kid is left dumbstruck and deeply indebted to him. The Kid walks into the alleyway, where he sees the black kid, who challenges him to another rematch. The Kid thinks that this is as good a time as any to start a new winning streak, so he accepts the challenge, but loses to the black kid for the first time ever. The Kid, who was once undefeated, has now lost twice in a row. His magic has escaped him.
South Park were the smart-ass kids from Gen X who tried to take on Trump, and the experience psychologically broke them. Now, half of their fan base hates them. Perhaps it really is time to #CancelSouthPark.
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