Without much fanfare,South Parkwraps up its 19th season on Wednesday night ( 10/9c, Comedy Central). It's rare that such a long-running show stays relevant or even finds anything new to do, but this season has been South Park's most on-point in a half-decade. South Park has always been an issues-driven show, but a section of the larger culture has aligned with (or perhaps more accurately, aligned against) creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's point of view in a way that has allowed them to find their antagonistic, satirical sweet spot. For the first time in South Park's history, this year the show featured a season-long plot about how the town changes when a new principal takes over the school and begins enforcing political correctness with an iron fist. Political-correctness-as-suppression-tactic is the perfect topic for them to go deep, as South Park has basically been at its core a show championing unconstrained free speech since it started, and political correctness (or identity politics or social justice or other such related terms) is the most culturally prominent it's been in the show's lifespan. Parker and Stone make fun of everything, but they're very serious about freedom of speech. They've spent this season confronting an ideology that would rather a show like South Park doesn't exist.
At the beginning of Season 19, South Park introduced PC Principal, the new elementary school principal. He's an Oakley-wearing meathead jock who cares deeply about social justice; so deeply that if someone doesn't fall in line with his beliefs, he will administer a verbal and/or physical beatdown. He brings along a fraternity of social justice bros, who recruit locals including Randy Marsh to act as the PC police, complete with vocal siren. Now that South Park is culturally safe and sanitized, it gets physically gentrified, complete with a Whole Foods and new businesses and condos that price the poor people out. Meanwhile, PC Principal is trying to censor the school newspaper after Jimmy, its editor, writes against the culture of tolerant intolerance fostered by PC Principal and his enforcers. Jimmy gets recruited by a group of mysterious journalists to analyze advertisements, since his independent mind cannot be fooled by ads masquerading as news. In Wednesday's finale, the hinted-at conspiracy that apparently installed PC Principal and enabled the gentrification of the town in order to make everything safe for advertising will be revealed. It hinges on Leslie, a sentient ad in human form inspired by Ava, the creepy AI robot from Ex Machina. The whole plot of the season has been building to a point that forced political correctness makes people afraid to speak out for fear of being labelled racist or stupid, and that suppression of dissent leads to a docile populace whose only purpose is to be advertised to.
Not all of the satire has been successful. South Park has no sacred cows except freedom of speech, and whether you find it funny depends on your own sacred cows. For example, I find the recurring bit about Caitlyn Jenner killing people with her car and having no consequences terrific, because I, too, am uncomfortable with the lionization of Jenner as "stunning and brave" when Jenner is probably a bad person. But the bits about advertising fall flat for me, because I know the difference between an ad and an article, and the conflation of sponsored content and pop-up ads is misguided. Sponsored content exists because people stopped clicking on pop-ups or banner ads, and to depict characters falling down rabbit holes of clicking on ads for Viagra or whatever when what the writers mean to comment on is duplicitous advertising is just factually inaccurate. Plus, it's also weird that a smartass libertarian show wouldn't argue that it's the consumer's responsibility to be able to separate advertising from real information.
The show still uses its very short lead time (episodes are finished just a few days before they air) to its advantage in commenting on the news of the day. In a fortuitous coincidence where real life lined up perfectly with the show, it used the protests at the University of Missouri as the inspiration for a scene as the protests were happening. The finale is going to comment on the vociferous debate about gun control in response to America's gun violence problem. Since the show is so reactive, it doesn't always get things right. And sometimes it meanders and loses focus, like its ill-conceived episode about Asian students drawing erotic art that convinces everyone that Tweak and Craig are gay (trust me, it would make even less sense if I explained it in more detail). But Season 19 has been vital when it sticks to its primary focus, which Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich beautifully summed up earlier this season:
"It's not making fun of political correctness. It's staging a full-frontal assault on the profiteers of political correctness. It's portraying how the very important work of protecting victims can shade ever so gradually into a culture that hyperbolizes minor (or even perceived) transgressions. And it's having a serious conversation about the unforeseen side effects of politically correct culture."
PC Principal and his macho white male followers are motivated not by actual goodness, but by a desire for social capital and power. They're no better than the bullies and bigots they're against. And it's not just the left that gets skewered; the show reserves its harshest judgement for Donald Trump, whose Canadian stand-in meets an unspeakable end.
South Park has always tried to be offensive for a purpose, and in this season that sense of purpose has been renewed. We'll have to tune in Wednesday to find out exactly what South Park proposes is the solution to the issues of PC abuse, gentrification, and nefarious advertising. But whatever it is, whether you agree with it or not, it'll be thought-provoking.
South Park airs its season finale on Wednesday at 10/9c on Comedy Central.