Few viewers who tuned in to South Park when it debuted in 1997 would have predicted the show would still be going strong twenty years later. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s crude and belligerent cartoon has always been purposefully lo-fi and low brow, designed for immediacy and flexibility rather than staying power. And yet it not only endures but in many ways has become the establishment it railed against, now standing as one of the clearest examples of troll culture as the new status quo, its obsessive fans defending it as vital satire despite the fact that the currently dominant political movement looks and behaves exactly like the show’s cast.
While it might be unfair to lay any significant blame for the political disaster we’re living at South Park’s feet, it’s nonetheless clear that South Park no longer functions as a fuck you to the establishment but as an agent of it and any provocateur looking to shake things up today should be looking towards empathy rather than crassness. By training an entire generation to believe obnoxiously not taking a stand and mocking both sides is peak bravery, South Park has helped usher in a terrifying political landscape where caring about other people isn’t an expected responsibility in society but a revolutionary act, which in turn renders the show itself impotent, no matter how vocal its belief that it remains shocking.
Nowhere was this clearer than in Parker and Stone’s decision to “back off” of commenting on Donald Trump in the show’s 21st season, telling ABC News it was because political satire was just “more difficult” these days. This provoked Sam Barlanti at the AV Club to point out
…it’s hard not to see the “it’s too hard to make fun of real life” attitude as a predictably safe extension of the “both sides are just as bad” approach that South Park has had for years…
Where fans and defenders routinely bring up South Park’s “both sides are just as bad” mentality as proof of boldness, this has actually always been the exact quality that has kept South Park from being effective satire. The showrunners’ cowardly retreat from Trump coverage proves their goal isn’t rising to difficult challenges and fighting back against the actual establishment but lazily taking a shotgun approach to a swath of targets that are safer because of the dedicated immaturity of their base and its refusal to give a fuck about others. It goes without saying that dedicated immaturity and a refusal to give a fuck about others also happen to be the two main traits of Trump’s own base.
By contrast, look at the critical and financial success of Get Out, directed by Parker and Stone’s Comedy Central peer Jordan Peele. For all the noise South Park’s creators and fans make about “PC culture” ruining everything with its callouts and lack of humor, Peele literally turned the concept of cultural appropriation into the most effective and successful horror comedy in a generation. And Peele did this at the height of Trump mania, releasing the film almost immediately after the inauguration, sending a message that was truly brave and topical without losing any humor.
Satires like Get Out don’t shy away from making pointed, aggressive statements about specific issues, and that’s part of why they will always be more necessary than anything South Park has ever attempted. And they’re even more important in times like these, when regressive conservatives are successfully turning empathy into a dirty word, childishly lashing out at any criticism of their behavior by mocking the very act of caring. This is the logical evolution of South Park’s brand of “satire,” where the only consistent target is feelings and sensitivity. Get Out is a dangerous work in the sense that it puts itself at risk by shining a light on the subtle racism that is so omnipresent in our culture, but South Park is a dangerous work in the sense that it successfully trains its fans to not give a fuck and to shout down anyone who does.
What’s promising is that the success of a work like Get Out shows that the coming generation is rebelling by actually giving a fuck and supporting works that do the same. The real brave works in culture aren’t temper tantrums about being told to not be an asshole but aggressive takedowns of the people and systems that can’t handle scrutiny. You can witness funnier, smarter satire at any given moment on Twitter than on a season of South Park, and the quickness and ferocity of the sharpest minds in these scenes serves to further highlight how sluggish and weak South Park has become. If the show was ever useful, it has long since aged out of that.
This isn’t to say that South Park shouldn’t exist, or that it is entirely incapable of being effectively provocative. But on its 20th anniversary, as think pieces roll out everywhere celebrating how “sharp” it remains, it’s necessary to look back at what the show has actually accomplished and determine whether it is truly as important as its loyalists make it out to be. Can any satire that is inherently apathetic actually be considered satire? When not giving a fuck becomes the status quo, can your work still be shocking if that’s all it stands for? Or is it just lazy and useless?
It’s doubtful that Parker or Stone or their fans recognize that not giving a fuck isn’t shocking when that’s the dominant mode in politics, and South Park’s inability to grow at all and shift its aims isn’t evidence of brilliant satire but of stalling out. The duo’s sad, resigned approach to Trump should serve as a sign that by becoming one of the clearest voices of the dominant rhetoric, South Park has backed itself into a corner where it shocks no one and merely exists as one long juvenile circle jerk.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover