Making Sense of Serializing ‘South Park’

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South Park has made a name for itself by breaking boundaries and pushing the envelope, with their incredibly streamlined production schedule allowing them near-unrivaled power on commenting on breaking and current events. So it’s a little surprising that the most unpredictable and ambitious thing South Park did this season was experiment with serialized, continuity-heavy storytelling. This season embraced the approach more than ever before, almost distilling the year into a singular storyline that they kept returning to.

While its prevalence has fluctuated throughout the season (some episodes have functioned entirely as standalone entities), it’s worth assessing why South Park has decided to make this shift this late in the game, and if it’s paid off and is something they’ll continue to do.

It’s easier to pull off this sort of serialized gambit with the shorter ten-episode seasons that the show is now churning out. This smaller number is a more manageable task to form into a cohesive story than the “full” seasons they were dealing with years ago. And most recently, Matt and Trey were responsible for putting together the South Park video game, The Stick of Truth, and what is a video game if not one big storyline and piece of continuity? This sort of longer storytelling has been on their minds for a while now.

But in the end, what seems more likely than anything else for the change is that they did this to see if they could do it. The past years have seen Matt and Trey experimenting with longer and longer forms of narrative, whether it be three-parters, feature films, musicals, or even video games, and this season saw the progression of their storytelling ability. They wanted to challenge themselves eighteen years in somehow, and like anything you’re doing after eighteen years, it gets boring and needs to be shaken up. And what better way to do that then spitballing a serialized storyline across your season on the fly?

We’ve seen South Park playing with this approach in the past, like in season five where Kenny was killed for real, and much of the season revolved around the gang holding a new friend contest to fill in Kenny’s vacant spot, a move which ushered in Tweek and acted as Butters’ big introduction. There were even attempts in the past to satiate Matt and Trey’s boredom with regularity like when Mr. Hat (remember him?) switched over to Mr. Twig before being phased out entirely. Or the much more prominent arc of Mr. Garrison becoming Mrs. Garrison for a number of seasons before ultimately ending back as a male.

Seasons from recent years have even largely consisted of three- and two-parters that continued a singular story, which at that point, is almost the same as incorporating continuity into your season. Even still, what was happening this season felt very different and more deliberate than that. This was clearly trying to create ties and connections to previous episodes of the year. If this wasn’t clear yet, it’s solidified when Sharon goes out of her way to mention Randy’s cock magic (a plotline from a previous episode) out of nowhere, seemingly only to prove that yes, there’s continuity happening this season, people.

More of this sort of attitude has been applied in the show’s most recent seasons, with non sequitur dialogue like Clyde revealing the gang went to Peru to deal with the guinea pig pandemic, or the callback to Stan gratuitously “jerking it in the street.” What’s been going on this season has involved many more balls being juggled and dots being connected, however.

All of this culminates and comes into focus with the season’s two-part finale that not only doubles down on the references and callbacks, but the storyline itself hinges on what’s been built through the other episodes. Randy is forced to perform in a Woman of Rock concert (whose proceeds are going to cure the gluten problem that came up earlier) as Lorde because of the damage done to their finances from the freemium gaming episode. It’s an incestuous, sprawling, beautiful thing, and it’s something they should certainly play with more.

That’s not to say that this season’s structure was flawless, but even when it felt gratuitous or tenuous, it was still fascinating due to the unpredictable aspect of it all. Arguably it wasn’t a perfect experiment, and if it were, every single episode would have surely been intertwined, rather than some existing devoid of the larger Lorde arc that consumed nearly everything. Basically, when it wasn’t present, you weren’t thinking about it and didn’t mind, but when continuity was being serviced, you were delighted.

In the end, this was largely worth doing, successfully executed, and enthralled most of the show’s viewership. I would highly doubt that anyone abandoned this season due to the connective nature of it all, or that there’s anyone who vehemently believes that South Park is antithetical to serialized storytelling (although those people are still probably out there), so what’s the harm? It’s incredible that this long into its life, South Park can still shake things up and feel original, and that more than anything is what’s important here.

Because everyone – even an animated cable television show – wants to feel royal. Ya ya ya. I am Lorde. Ya ya.