Everything gets old; everything ends. Somethings die quickly (Family Guy) and are forgotten by those who loved it soon afterwards. Somethings die slowly, so you don’t notice the decay until it’s too late (The Simpsons). Those things leave a bitter-sweet hole in your heart that you wouldn’t dare fill with any other love. Then there are somethings that end in a way that leaves a sour after-taste in your mouth. The kind of after-taste that, upon reflection, makes it hard to be nostalgic toward your first bite.
For two seasons there, I really thought South Park would be remembered as that. Like the family dog that you realize should have been put-down quietly before it ever got this bad. A while back (in 2011, I think), there was this one episode of South Park called “You’re Getting Old”. It was only a mid-season finale, but it felt like the un-official series finale. Lets talk about it after the Continue Reading tab. Flowers optional.
The episode dealt with Stan’s tenth birthday and the sense of cynicism he feels sinking in with older age. He can’t feel excited about the things he used to; everything is just shit, now. He feels isolated from his friends at school and Stan becomes increasingly depressed and despondent.
After he complains during the trailers before X-Men: First Class (it’s a parody of Jack & Jill and that one penguin movie with Jim Carrey), Stan’s friends decide he won’t ever be fun to hang around again, so they leave. When he gets home, Stan over-hears his parents arguing over how boring and route their lives have become. She complains about how they parody everything, but say nothing important. He tells her he’s changed, that he has no time left, that he is tired of pretending everything is okay. They agree they have run out of things to say and that every week (episode) has become more vacuous than the last.
“You’re Getting Old” ended with a straight-faced montage set to Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide that felt less like a parody of a Mad Men finale and more like an honest attempt at closure. Fans fell under the belief that South Park would lumber-on until Trey and Matt’s contract ran-up, then they would end the series without fan-fare. This was the pre-mature funeral.
And, that really seemed to be the case. South Park just didn’t have the heart it used to. You could sense that every new episode had been pitched in the writer’s-room with an accompanying shrug and a “Fuck it”. It was a sad thing to watch, so a lot of us stopped. Trey and Matt had clearly given us the cue to cut it off. What had once been an astute, disarmingly honest satire disguising itself as grade-school shit and fart jokes had descended into grade-school shit and fart jokes that were pretentious enough to think they were being astute, disarmingly honest satire. South Park became that old, sad dog the family sometimes talk about putting down in hushed whispers, so the kids can’t hear.
After a completely under-whelming sixteenth season, South Park did something unexpected: it got good again. In the history of television, I can’t think of many other phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes stories as strong as this one. The last two episode that aired before I wrote this recap (“Titties and Dragons” and “The Hobbit”) ended with jarring, very emotional moments of cultural reflection. “Titties and Dragons” ended with a haunting cut to real-life footage of Black Friday sales, making the separation between the absurd cartoon and real-life appear paper thin. “The Hobbit” ended on a bleak note, as Wendy finally succumbs to the social-pressure and uploads a Photoshopped picture of herself to the Internet, after wiping away a single tear.
Finally, South Park again has something on its mind worth saying. That seemingly inexhaustible treasure-trove of satire ended up being even more inexhaustible than we had thought. In a year of television that I’ve already described as having a multitude of pleasant surprises, South Park returning to its peak of quality was the shock that made me the happiest. I can’t help but wonder how much The Book of Mormon receiving the praise it did has to do with sudden spike in enthusiasm from Trey Parker and Matt.
Whatever caused it, I’m relieved. I think we need South Park, for a lot of reasons. The best reason, in my mind, is that we as a culture have no other show brave enough to tell us when we are being ugly. To calm us down and reason with us when we are being hysterical. Or, to enrage us when we are apathetic. We need South Park. And I’m so glad it didn’t end with “You’re Getting Old”.
This episode isn’t very funny.
I mean, it’s not meant to be, granted. But even the jokes that are there seem exceedingly lazy and uninspired. I can’t really complain about this, because the point of the whole episode is “not finding the joke funny anymore”, but that doesn’t mean it’s an enjoyable half-hour of television to watch. It’s paced poorly, and until the end of the episode, it lacks any momentum at all. The sincerity of the Fleetwood Mac montage at the end boosts it up a * alone, though. That was sad in ways I never thought South Park could be.
I’m still going to give it an overall *** out of *****, though, because of its honesty and its frank depiction of depression. And because, as hard to believe as it was in 2011, that wasn’t the end of South Park; It just needed some time to remember what a world without Stan and the gang would look like: darker, no laughter, and worst of all, no integrity.
Randy: “Okay!– I’ve been unhappy a long time.” Sharon: “I’m unhappy, too. We both are, obviously! How much longer can we keep doing this? It’s like the same shit just happens over and over and then in a week it all re-sets until it happens again! Every week it’s kinda the same story in a different way, but it just gets more ridiculous.” Randy: “I don’t know if you’ve changed, or if I have, but I don’t have a lot of time left, and I just want to enjoy it.” Sharon: “I want to enjoy it, too. I just can’t fake it anymore. You just seem kinda shitty to me.” Randy: “You kinda seem shitty to me, too.” Sharon: “People get older, Randy. People grow apart.”