Sunday, January 31, 2016

2015: The Year South Park Finally Got Old

In online-adjacent spaces, Tumblr often stands in as a rhetorical punching-bag for everyone from outright hate-groups (think the “GamerGate” harassment campaign, or the various arms of Breitbart and Stormfront) to more reasoned blowback from aging Boomer and Gen-X comedians like Jerry Seinfeld (or Chris Rock) bracing at criticism about offensive jokes from “politically correct” Millennial audiences. PC Principal, of course, is a blunt personification of the former, a literal “PC bully” inflicting aggressive punishment on anyone who dares speak or think out of step with an ever-changing ideological purity; what innumerable hand-wringing thinkpieces have dubbed the “outrage culture.”

All of this, especially the spinning of inbound-criticism into a caricatured villain, is the stuff classic South Park has previously been made of, but this time there’s a palpable lack of actual connective tissue between the disparate elements (a late-arriving moral about politically-correct speech being “gentrification, but for language” lands with a bizarre, impotent thud in the finale) which is, quite frankly, shocking coming from creators who once turned their rivalry with Family Guy into an occasion to examine freedom of expression vis-a-vi religious parody in the post-9/11 era. Parker and Stone are hardly bulletproof and Park has stumbled plenty before, but the spectacle of a series that rewrote the book on staying evergreen and engaged with the culture it satirized seemingly devoting an entire season to scoffing at the concerns of the rising generation without any accompanying self-appraisal was utterly puzzling – particularly since the self-defense was still there, with PC Principal’s first scene being a monologue about how the town’s (read: the series’) behavior was “stuck in a time warp.”

That’s not to say that South Park (or any other series) has some kind of obligation to keep current with the generational or political winds. Indeed, the show (and its creators’) eagerness to prod the left and right with equal vigor has always been part of its signature. It’s easy to forget, but when the series landed right in the midst of the Clinton 90s (the decade where “political correctness” first became a mainstream phrase) seeing a comedy show with actual youth-culture street cred fire volleys at environmentalism, the “tolerance” push and other progressive-perennials Gen-Xers had been receiving as default-positives from Sesame Street right up through Friends was part of what made it feel exciting and different. It’s also what won the series a (then) unlikely following on the right-wing, with columnist Andrew Sullivan dubbing circa-2001 young conservatives “South Park Republicans” to the chagrin of the creators; who steadfastly insisted that they (and the show) had staked their claim squarely in the middle: on the South Park moral spectrum, the military/industrial right and the do-gooder left are equal antagonists of the “little guy” who was likely doing just fine until they started bothering him.

Of all the personal fixations and grievances that Parker and Stone contributed to South Park’s foundational DNA, that particular outlook is perhaps the most quintessentially demonstrative of their upbringing in the American Midwest, a region given to seeing itself as caught between the battles of clashing cultural-behemoths; be it the Republican South versus Democrat coasts or merely New York verus Los Angeles as economic power-centers. But it’s also a universally-comforting notion, since almost everyone would like to think of themselves as the normal, sensible person beset on all fronts by absurd extremes – and who, after all, doesn’t prefer stability (their own, at least) to chaos and upheaval? When a protest-march shuts down a city block, South Park’s first instinct is to look past the activists and their enemy to cast sympathy with the folks who didn’t ask to be involved but are now late for work all the same.

But the absolute middle is as much a fantasy as the existence of “pure” good or evil, and the problem with “leave me alone” as a philosophical ideal (whether for a cartoon show or a human life) is that you can’t resist upheaval without also upholding the status-quo. And in an era where “change” itself (changes in demographics, changes in society, changes in acceptable language, etc) is often at the forefront of our most divisive discussions, being reflexively anti-upheaval (regardless of the reason) is very much taking a side no matter how much one insists otherwise. This is tricky terrain for any work of satire where immediacy is part of the brand: It gets increasingly hard to be a rock star when you’re the one asking for the music to be turned down.

That’s precisely the predicament where Parker, Stone and South Park have now found themselves, in my estimation: It took a while, but they seem to have crossed the point where their dual central-sympathies – their own self-righteousness and the righteousness of put-upon “little guys” – are no longer one and the same. South Park is The Establishment at this point, and the little guys in perpetual danger of being trampled increasingly look less like the middle-age Generation-Xers who created it and more like the aggrieved rainbow of dissidents making noise on the likes of Tumblr (or out in the streets, for that matter.) And Season 19, by the end, felt like nothing so much as the creators gnashing their teeth at ascendant Millennials moments after the realization of this finally smacked them in the face. “Hmph! You kids today with your hula-hoops and your social justice!”

On the one hand, there’s no rule that says edgy humor is the sole province of the under-30 set: witness the aforementioned Jon Stewart’s career-defining metamorphosis from snarky MTV fixture to the sarcastic gray-haired political conscience of a nation for proof of that. But while it’s entirely possible for comedy (and comedians) to survive or even thrive as in the form of an ever-aging grownup grousing about “kids today,” it’s unclear exactly how South Park would do so. Unlike The Simpsons, which gradually pivoted focus from Bart to Homer in transition from trendy-troublemaker to cultural-landmark stature, Park feels permanently wed to the Main Four as central figures. Family Guy navigated similar longevity-pains (your mileage may vary on their success at such) by allowing creator Seth McFarlane’s self-insert character, Brian, to shift organically from being the moral-center of the series to a narcissistic, out-of-touch grump that nobody likes; but “You’re Getting Old” already took Park’s version of that kind of character-shift to the logical extreme and back again.

On the other hand, not every act stays potent in advancing age. Once upon a time, Dennis Miller was political comedy’s pre-Jon Stewart icon; a human-thesaurus motormouth whose snarky takes on current-events made his HBO series a kind of proto-Daily Show. But the march of time (and a self-admitted life-altering reaction to 9/11) took his comedy in an angrier, more conservative direction; and to the degree that he’s known at all today it’s for a right-wing talk radio show (recently concluded) and a recurring guest spot on The O’Reilly Factor – a fate far-removed from what the fans who once regarded him as the “thinking man’s” stand-up hero. Granted, it’s unlikely anything so extreme awaits the maestros of South Park (for one thing, they’ve already established a second mega-successful career as blockbuster Broadway musical creators,) but the gap between Miller’s full-throated embrace of Bush-era neoconservativism to the bafflement of his Gen-X fanbase and Parker and Stone’s grumpy cynicism about “Tumblr Generation”-embraced causes like transgender issues feels less and less vast every day; and the spectre of Miller’s fall hangs over every comic who wakes up one day to find themselves as the Old Man when just yesterday they were still the children he’s about to order off the lawn.

The final irony, though, and the one which makes South Park’s Season 19 pivot feel all the more askew, is the particularities of just what about Millennial social-consciousness, Tumblr-activism, “outrage culture” and the rest seems to bother Parker and Stone so much. The grievances bubbling under the season’s narrative-surface are familiar to anyone whose endured a wave or three of Internet blowback against “SJWs” (“Social Justice Warriors”): They’re too angry. They’re never satisfied. They “shoot” first and ask questions later. They demand ideological purity. They don’t respect procedure, or tenure, or institutions. They rant and rave and rage, treat pop-culture alternately like a toybox or target-range and won’t take “that’s not how it’s done” for an answer. They, effectively, act like indignant, infuriated adolescents too charged up at discovering a new power to shape the cultural conversation to bother wielding it any measure of responsibility.

That reminds me of somebody I used to know. Somebody who reacted to worries about how to tell jokes post-9/11 with “Watch us.” Somebody who wasn’t simply unafraid but eager to “call out” everyone from Michael Moore to Christopher Reeve to Tom Cruise. Somebody who’s response to professional-betrayal by a colleague was an eye-poppingly combative “Fine, go – but we’re gonna turn your character into a brainwashed child-molester and then kill him.” Somebody who saw the value in being loud, angry and tactless where it concerned getting one’s point across, and who didn’t merely invite the condescension and hand-wringing of the older generation but actually reveled in it. Sound like anyone you used to know, Stan? Or you, Kyle?

There’s no such thing, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always been all too eager to remind us, as an unacceptable target when it comes to satire. But choice and timing of targets can reveal a lot about those picking them, and in turning the full measure of its guns (an entire season of television) on perceived cornerstones of Millennial culture and, implicitly, on Millennials as a generational-class themselves, South Park would appear to have completed its transition from rebellious “angry kid” firebrand raging at every hint of authority to established, dug-in angry old man shaking a fist at the generation rising up behind it. And while South Park has endured and made fools of its critics before, it’s hard to imagine how you pull out of this particular trajectory when your “brand” has always been blunt-honesty at all costs.

No comments: