South Park just wrapped up its 19th season. Nineteen seasons is, to be very clear, a lot of seasons. It’s so many seasons that the number one song when it premiered was “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy, which had just recently bumped “MMMBop” from the top spot. It’s so many seasons that Nicolas Cage was still “Oscar-winning star of the new blockbuster Face/Off” Nicolas Cage when it premiered instead of “Guys, is Nicolas Cage okay?” Nicolas Cage. It’s so many seasons that, exactly one week before it premiered, Microsoft bailed out a “financially struggling” Apple Computers with a $150 million investment. It’s so many seasons that… it’s just a lot of seasons, okay?
All of which makes this next part a little crazy: South Park might have just had its best season yet.
The season was actually something quite different for the show. While creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have tinkered with continuity in the past (Randy Marsh as Lorde, three-episode arcs like “Imaginationland,” whatever the hell Mr. Garrison was up to), this time they went all-in. Rather than treat each episode as its own standalone creation, the show instead told one mostly continuous story over the entire 10-episode run. The result was something fun, new, and fresh, which is no small feat for a show that’s been around as long as it has. (Also worth noting: This experiment probably would have been impossible, or at least significantly more difficult, if the show hadn’t switched from a split 14-episode season — seven in fall, seven in spring — to one straight 10-episode shot a few years ago.)
The unifying themes of the season, for those who missed it, were twofold: One, the school’s longtime principal, Principal Victoria, was forced out and replaced with a musclebound bro named PC Principal (who, as far as viewers know, has no other name, which is delightful, because, like, what if he had gotten into dog grooming instead of education?), who brought with him a physically violent strain of political correctness that quickly took over the town. And two, thanks to Randy’s push for a Whole Foods, the town underwent a kind of hyperspeed gentrification that saw the creation of wine bars and fine restaurants in new neighborhoods called Shi Tpa Town and SodoSopa, the latter of which stands for “South of Downtown South Park” and was built around the still-standing (and occupied) small home of Kenny McCormick. Changes were afoot.
The serialized story allowed South Park to dig in deep on both topics, hitting them from both sides, while also touching on everything from Yelpers to gun control to the nature of advertising in 2015. It was really something. And the timing was just about perfect, too, as James Poniewozik of The New York Times pointed out.
Now, it was as if our culture had been shining an Eric Cartman-shaped Bat-signal and “South Park” answered. You could see the news from college campuses — safe spaces, trigger warnings — and conclude that America was more radically leftist than ever. You could read a dispatch from the Republican primary — border walls, refugee panic — and conclude that it was more reactionary than ever. The country is deeply polarized, and between two poles is precisely where the quasi-libertarian “South Park” most likes to swing.
All of this said, and for all the changes, South Park was still very much South Park. It still jumped back and forth between subtle, nuanced satire and jokes that hit like a sledgehammer. There was a running gag this season about Caitlyn Jenner running people over with her car. There was a prostitute named Classi “spelled with an ‘I’ and a little dick that hangs off the ‘C’ and f*cks the ‘L’ out of the ‘A-S-S.’” Donald Trump got raped to death. It’s still not for everyone. But that’s okay, and it was kind of the point the season, actually. By taking aim at both firmly entrenched extremes and their righteousness, South Park was able to weaponize one of its longstanding missions: Not everything has to be for everyone. Things could get a little dicey if every show played it so fast and loose, but it’s nice to know that South Park is still out there taking its shots.
(And, for what’s it’s worth, to the extent there was a hero of this season, it was Jimmy, a disabled character who has a speech impediment and needs crutches to get around. Say what you will about South Park, most of which will be fair, but try to name three other shows on television where a disabled character gets to save the day.)
Not all of the shots the show took landed perfectly (the finale was a bit overstuffed, for one), which is to be expected for a series that attempted to tell a unified five-hour story on South Park‘s manic weekly schedule, but it hit the intended target more often than not. Again, that’s impressive on its own, but it’s even more impressive when you circle back to the thing about this being the 19th season. The obvious temptation here is to compare this run to the creative lull The Simpsons hit after its glory days. In some ways, admittedly, this isn’t quite fair, as South Park‘s shorter cable seasons mean it’s produced about half of the number of episodes The Simpsons has. But on the other hand, it’s still almost 20 years of stories created by the same small team that started it all. It has no right to still be this good and this relevant. And yet, here we are.