Since 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated series South Park has been a staple of animated adult cartoons, with the 21st season having aired this September. The advertising campaign leading up to the new release promised a return to form after an experimental 19th and 20th seasons that, unlike the typical format of the show, formed a 20-episode chronological arc satirizing President Trump. Long-term fans were excited to get back to the basics that have made South Park such a beloved classic for more than two decades.
The way the show itself is typically written does not lend itself to a coherent story line—Parker and Stone begin writing the episode the week before it airs—which has typically meant every episode is a stand alone, self-contained arc. The clear upside for Parker and Stone’s chosen writing style from seasons 1-18 is that it gives the show flexibility to tackle current events while they are still fresh and relevant to the audience. The narrative suffered tremendously when Trump won the election because Parker and Stone had written the subsequent episodes under the assumption that Hillary would win, requiring massive last-minute rewrites. Maybe it was these narrative headaches that led the writing duo to insist on returning to their original plan for the show for season 21.
The problematic part of this new season is its struggle to find an identity. The show has grown and changed so much getting up to this point—two decades of Terrance and Phillip fart jokes, and people are finally starting to realize that this show actually has something to say. The show has long tackled deep subjects like religion, drugs, and the implications of pop culture, managing to analyze them and turn them on their head to show viewers a new way of seeing everyday social and cultural issues. Now that they’ve tried out a new chronological narrative structure, it’s jarring to just break that pattern after committing to it for two whole seasons.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been strong jokes this season—the Randy-centric episode 3 was very much what you’d expect from a typical South Park episode, and the mockery of Mark Zuckerberg in episode 4, portraying him as a dubbed-over, old-school Kung-Fu-movie-type character, was very much in sync with the writing duo’s random celebrity jabs—‘Member everyone mistaking a goat for Stevie Nicks way back in season 5? ‘Member Cartman’s hand-puppet Jennifer Lopez? ‘Member Mr. Jefferson?
The new season has been just as well-written and funny as previous ventures despite some continuity flaws in trying to implement elements established in seasons 19 and 20 into the “old” world of South Park. Cartman, a character famous for serving his arch enemy a bowl of chili containing the boy’s parents, has a girlfriend now. And series regular Mr. Garrison has left South Park to run the country from the Oval Office. These are big changes to a town where the protagonists have been frozen in 4th grade since the late 90s. With the tight deadlines Stone, Parker, and the talented animators meet each week, the story will likely continue to experience some of these difficulties—but a show that has managed to stay relevant for so long deserves some wiggle room in addressing them.
With writers as creative as Stone and Parker, I hope they continue to experiment with narrative structure and writing style in the future. But for now, a return to form is exactly what the show needs. Luckily, the season is still just starting out. Stone and Parker have more time to show their stripes and more time to set the tone for seasons moving ahead in the future.