South Park Season 22 has undeniably undergone a radical change. Yet, hilariously, no one can agree on what that change means, or what it even is.
Nothing exemplified that more than the latest episode, “The Problem with a Poo.” A definitive turning point for a show that’s been through the TV equivalent of a quarter-life crisis in recent years, the contentious episode will surely go down in history.
But what, exactly, it will be remembered for remains to be seen.
On the surface, it looked like business as usual when Mr. Hankey (yes, the Christmas Poo) showed up with a classic, “Hidey ho!” But the episode title and ensuing character arc, which ended with a call to #CancelTheSimpsons, revealed that it was tackling much more than fart humor.
Namely, it took on the entire concept of “cancel culture.” With direct references to the controversies around Roseanne Barr, Brett Kavanaugh, and the ongoing debate over whether The Simpsons‘ stereotypically Indian Apu character has a place in our current culture, it dove in face first.
But in what is perhaps one of the show’s greatest feats in trolling, no one can figure out which “side” South Park is actually advocating for. And that’s the entire point.
In the episode, Mr. Hankey, who (like Apu in The Simpsons) is a crude relic of an old South Park era, is being pushed out of the Christmas pageant by the town due to concerns of poor representation. He doesn’t respond well to these criticisms, firing off ridiculously offensive tweet storms at everyone from elementary school kids to the mayor — before blaming Ambien and doing it again anyway.
Kyle is the only one in town willing to get “smeared” by standing up for this literal piece of shit, and as Cartman warns, “Good luck with that in 2018.” Sure enough, this escalation ends with Mr. Hankey beating up the third-grade boy trying to help him, before getting kicked out of South Park because he’s too upsetting to the (again, literal) PC babies.
That summary might sound like a return to form for South Park, after a few seasons of experimenting with serialization and then avoiding the problem of Donald Trump.
No one can figure out which “side” South Park is actually advocating for. And that’s the entire point.
But the third episode of Season 22 continued its distinct yet subtle subversion of expectation. For the first time, South Park seems to be genuinely engaged with questioning its own place in the current cultural climate. The #CancelTheSimpsons was actually an extension of the season’s #CancelSouthPark marketing campaign, a hashtag also playing into the show by appearing at the end credits of each episode so far.
Many have been left wondering what this dare to “cancel” South Park means. It could just be more typical fuck-you humor — or it could be indicative of a huge turning point for the animated TV legend.
Arguably, both “The Problem with a Poo” and #CancelSouthPark campaign is adding a meta layer of meaning to South Park‘s social commentary that’s never been there before.
And it’s a gamble with a potential to pay off as much as its move to serialization did.
No one can make claims about a collective season this early. But for a show that’s known for responding to the weekly cultural zeitgeist, the subject matter in Season 22 took a hard turn into the evergreen instead: school shootings, predatory Catholic priests, public controversies that took place months ago.
Previously, we would’ve expected South Park to do an entire episode on the Kavanaugh hearing, for example. Now, it only references topical issues in passing, instead setting its sights on even bigger fish.
It’s not just the issues, either. The more indefinable change to South Park lies in a shift in attitude. Each episode’s takeaways, while certainly less clear-cut than its more characteristically smarmy apathy, are now measured, sincere, elusive, and bafflingly balanced.
At times, this hard-to-pin-down change in perspective feels wishy-washy. It can veer on being too “both sides”-ish to stomach. Is the show condemning The Simpsons for its abysmal response to the Apu cultural criticism, or is it sympathizing with the ever-present threat of being mobbed by performative political correctness?
That ending was the animated equivalent of “I feel your pain.”
— Alan Spencer (@MrAlanSpencer) October 11, 2018
Hilariously (and likely deliberately), both sides of the Apu debate interpreted the episode in a way that fits their worldview on the issue. And if that isn’t the most apt 2018 meta commentary to ever exist, we don’t know what is.
In a now-deleted tweet, Hari Kondabolu, the comedian behind The Problem with Apu documentary, said, “Did @SouthPark just side with me? WHAT IS HAPPENING? #CancelTheSimpsons #PleaseDontThough.” But his detractors were quick to inform him he’d missed the point and actually, he was the crying PC baby.
Both sides of the Apu debate interpreted the episode in a way that fits their world view on the issue
At the same time, Simpsons showrunner Al Jean saw it as a demonstration of solidarity for their plight. But that’s pretty hard to argue in full context of the episode, too. He didn’t do himself any favors by retweeting sentiments like #CancelTheCritic, in response to an episode where the proxy to the character he’s defending is (again) a literal piece of shit representing Roseanne Barr.
That’s where the potential brilliance of the new South Park lies.
In an age of unrelenting controversy and vitriolic division, the usually acerbically controversial South Park is showing some attempt at reason. More shocking still, it’s taking itself and these topics a bit more seriously.
Instead of the middle-finger nihilism that used to define the show, South Park has moved into a meta existentialism that holds up the mirror to society in a whole different way.
What feels so weird about Season 22 of South Park is that the previous ethos of “equality through a mockery of everyone,” is now more like “equality through a sincere empathy for all.”
Unlike what it might’ve done in the past, “The Problem with a Poo” [isn’t?] saying that both sides are wrong and the debate itself is stupid. Ultimately, the episode is actually asking us to see how both sides are both right and wrong — and how the self-righteousness of pretending to be anything other than a flawed human being is a disease that plagues us all right now, regardless of which “side” you’re on.
Mr. Hankey (our stand-in for Barr, remember) does some objectively, irredeemably, unapologetically bad shit. The episode argues he might well deserve to be left behind in a culture that’s moved past the “it’s a joke” excuse of racist and offensive humor — which is a level of self-awareness one would never expect from a show like South Park.
But to quote Mr. Hankey’s final words of wisdom to Kyle, “We can all be shitty sometimes.” Sure, some cases of shittiness deserve cancellation. Yet, as the newscaster says about the erasure of the beloved Christmas Poo from South Park, we also get caught up in giving “ourselves a part on the back as we as a society try to sweep away all the poop.”
South Park has always had an at times infuriatingly libertarian superiority that allowed it to situate itself above polarizing sides of an argument. But this is different.
By showing the faults of both sides, it’s not advocating for indifferent ridicule. It’s asking its audience to empathize with why everyone is so heated, angry, terrified, and exhausted by the experience of being alive in 2018.
Listen, there are ample criticisms to be levied against this move.
Arguably, there is very little middle ground to reasonably stand on at this time. And the “new” South Park might miss the mark more than usual, or be too afraid to say much of anything definitive like it used to (for better or worse).
But, if we’re being generous, the creators might’ve also just upped the ante on what the show can say about a time of total disingenuousness.
Is this a new era of introspection, earnestness, and (dare we day) maturity for South Park? It might be.
Or, you know, it could just be a really good poo joke.