New Shit Happens: South Park S15 E08

5 October 2011

"Maybe it won't be like before, but at least it'll all be new. And that's what's gonna make it so that I can keep going. For the first time in a long time, I'm really excited."

A quick note to the reader: the word “shit” permeates the following post. After my mom complained about the…ahem, adult language on TRv (or as I like to think of it, the language of adulthood), I did make an effort to tone it down. But the basic premise of this episode of South Park is indeed shit, so I am compelled to use the appropriate diction.

It’s a little disconcerting to be at film school and realize the most affecting, poignant media you’ve seen in the last three weeks has been the entirety of Ozu’s Late Spring, a single scene in Ray’s Charulata, and a new episode of South Park.

The last episode of South Park (S15 E07) explored Stan’s realization, on the day of his tenth birthday, that everything he had ever loved before was shit. As the episode ends, Stan feels alienated from his friends and his parents are getting a divorce. In the world of cartoons, Stan’s changing values and his home life would likely be overlooked in the following episode. If these issues were revisited, it would be to reassure the viewers that nothing has changed and everything is back to normal. How many times has Homer Simpson supposedly learned a life lesson before reverting to his prehistoric self in the next episode?

What I love about Trey Parker and Matt Stone is that they didn’t take the easy route. In this episode of South Park, Stan confronts his scatological worldview. In a clever, but perhaps intentionally dated parody of The Matrix, Stan joins a group of misfits who have been branded with diagnoses of Asperger’s. As soon as Stan’s mother leaves, the socially-inept nerds reveal that their shared syndrome is fabricated; they’ve actually cracked the matrix and, like Stan, see all the shit in the world that other people can’t acknowledge. Yeah, how could I possibly relate to this representation of mildly egotistical arbitration of taste? Here’s the kicker: before Stan can re-enter the shit-matrix and convince his friends that everything they love is illusory crap, he needs to get liquored up. There aren’t too many ways to read this devastating theme: (overly?) sensitive types deal with the shit of the world through booze.

Ooh. That hits rather close to home. To be clear, I’m not a total lush, nor are any of my self-described sensitive friends, but I have been known to discuss my interest in Francis Ford Coppola’s proprietary wine on Facebook. I wouldn’t say that mild alcoholism is a quality coping strategy, but I get where Parker and Stone are coming from. If you feel like nearly every facet of culture is infested with scampering shit-rats, then you definitely develop some idiosyncratic ways to deal with it. Ten-year-olds counter their ennui with booze, twenty-two-year-olds pretend to like stuff that they secretly don’t. Then they’ll try really hard to sit through an entire Q & A with an old-timer who’s reliving his glory days from working on mediocre television programs, but they leave two hours in because really, who needs more than two hours of that shit?

If you’re working in the arts like Parker and Stone, and you’ve created a show that actively criticizes a culture of mediocrity for almost fifteen years, but somewhere along the line you realize that you’ve just succumbed to the same shit you’ve been attacking for so long, all you want to hear is this: You’re doing it better.

When you’re a critic and an artist, there’s always a fragmentary question of quality haunting the recesses of your mind. How do we say mean things about other people’s work if we make the same mistakes in our own? How am I qualified to write scathing comments about another writer’s work if mine isn’t much better? Some people are critics, and some are artists, but it’s tough as hell to be both. I don’t care if the world knows that I loathed Bridesmaids or I found Up All Night tedious. I care that my own work surpasses the shit I don’t like. As an unrepentant critic and an emerging artist, I want to hear that my work is better than everything I hate. And sometimes it is, but more often, it’s not. So all I can do is practice my craft and hope something shinier than shit comes out.

When Parker and Stone choose to let Stan examine his culture and interests critically, they’re taking a real creative risk (Confidential to Gossip Girl writers: This is what character development looks like). It’s rare to see a cartoon character grow in a tangible way. To use a writer’s term, it’s more common to see a character’s development arc over the course of an episode, but by the next episode, the same character has returned to his or her established self. If Parker and Stone can find interesting, sustainable story-lines that explore Stan’s new values and sense of self, this could be an exceptional season of a show that might have otherwise run its course. You’re doing it better. Stay tuned.