Wednesday night marked the conclusion of both South Park‘s two-part season finale and the most ambitious season of the show’s 18-year history. Nearly every episode managed to tie into the finale in one way or another, and the serial storyline gave South Park a new dimension which made it rewarding to tune in each week. Still, the show has been quite ambitious before and it’s easy to see as you look at some past episodes.
The first time South Park experimented with a multi-part episode came in Season 1, when fans learned the origin of Cartman’s father and got really mad at Matt Stone & Trey Parker for pulling that Terrence & Phillip April Fool’s stunt. Even then, when the show’s biggest hook was “hey, look, 8-year-olds are saying curse words,” there was still an interest in storytelling not seen in other shows. For the sake of comparison, The Simpsons waited until the end of its six-season to give us the two-part story of who shot Mr. Burns, and it remains the only two-part episode in the show’s history.
But what the show did in its third season was even more ambitious, giving us a three-part episode telling us how each of the four main characters viewed a meteor shower. In the first episode, “Cat Orgy,” Shelly baby sits Cartman and finds out just how much of a handful can be. The second, “Two Guys Naked In A Hot Tub,” focuses in Stan’s adventures in the basement with the “melvins” while Randy and Gerald…well, you know. Finally, “Jewbilee” showed Kyle, Kenny, and Ike at camp. By dividing the tale into three different episodes, there was ample opportunity to flesh out each storyline. To make another Simpsons comparison, imagine what “Trilogy Of Error” might have been if it had been three separate episodes, rather than cramming each story into one 22-minute show.
Technically speaking, this season really isn’t the first time South Park tried a serial storyline. In fact, they did something similar 12-years earlier, when an entire season focused on Kenny really being dead this time. We saw the boys try to cope with a new friend, but neither Butters or Tweek really fit the bill, and Butters’ immense feeling of rejection lead to him creating his alter-ego Professor Chaos. That season also saw Kenny’s soul get trapped inside Cartman, a pot roast, and finally, Rob Schneider. This season’s storyline was a bit more daring because it involved more plotlines at once, but even in 2002, South Park was experimenting with multi-episodic storylines that the other adult cartoons it most often draws comparisons to wouldn’t think to attempt.
In 2006, we saw the two-part “Go God, Go” saga, which grappled with the existence of God, and the debate over evolution even though the primary story was about Cartman trying to get a Nintendo Wii. The following year, they got even more ambitious with the three-part “Imaginationland” episode, which was as close to a second South Park movie as we had seen up to that point. When you watch all three-parts together, it reveals itself as a far more cinematic piece of television than when watching each episode individually over a three-week span.
Since then, the multi-part episodes have continued, with “Pandemic” in 2008, and last year’s Black Friday trilogy. The latter was particularly enjoyable, for spoofing several elements of Game Of Thrones while also creating a story that was intriguing in its own right. I mean, who doesn’t love Princess Kenny?
The point is, South Park has always been an ambitious show, willing to stay out of its comfort zone for quite some time now. Really, since the beginning, Matt & Trey have been exploring lengthier story-lines and multi-episode plots. This season, however, they raised it to a higher level, with several plots continuing throughout the season. The mere fact that they were able to turn Randy Marsh into Lorde and somehow get a convincing story out of it is probably worth an Emmy all by itself.
The big question is whether this format will continue going forward. Will next year’s season also have plotlines that are developed throughout the season, or will Matt & Trey return to producing more standalone episodes? Perhaps they can take this new direction even further, and give us an even more ambitious season than what we just saw. From everything that happened this past season, there’s no reason South Park can’t be as ambitious as it wants to be.