Since November 9, South Park has focused on an especially fraught satirical target. The show has yet to be publicly criticized by our new president-elect, but he has made his contempt for media institutions that dare to cast aspersions on him abundantly clear. He’s stopped just short of declaring war on Saturday Night Live and the New York Times, and it’s likely that Trey Parker and Matt Stone smelled their own blood in the water on Election Night as well. Taking an outwardly anti-Trump stance on such a large platform could be a hazardous move, and the final episodes of this season have attempted to mount an argument for South Park’s continued relevance in the Trump era.
The writers take a welcome potshot at themselves midway through “Not Funny,” poking fun at the single-mindedness of all these post-election episodes through the complaint that “we’ve just been dealing with trolling and internet stuff over and over, week after week.” The show’s humor has indeed stalled in recent episodes, getting hung up on the single (and not especially substantive) plotline involving Denmark, the Troll Trace program, and orange-faced President-elect Mr. Garrison’s response to it. But in “Not Funny,” Parker and Stone unveil their endgame and confirm that this is indeed all going somewhere. Trolling, or at least a nobler version of trolling with higher intentions, is a great and essential national tradition. The freedom to be a dick, a vital component of Parker and Stone’s strain of satire, is triumphed as a crucial American right.
Throughout the episode, an imprisoned Gerald makes desperate appeals to the Danes holding him hostage, attempting to justify the act of trolling. He offers mealy-mouthed cop-outs, claiming, “I’m a satirist, I challenge people’s point of view by being edgy” and “I wasn’t doing it to hurt people, it’s comedy, it’s different.” These are both unsatisfactory answers — Parker and Stone continue to portray him as a craven little coward — but the dialogue about the thin line separating trolling from meaningful cultural criticism is deadly serious. “Pushing a person’s buttons to get a reaction can actually be very good for society,” Gerald offers, and although he’s just saying whatever will get him out of harm’s way, Parker and Stone evidently support the sentiment. The line of dialogue, “Well, maybe being funny is just how you deal with certain subjects” might as well be the mission statement of South Park, where nothing is beyond mockery.
The creators of the show do not consider themselves trolls, drawing a line in the sand by defining trolling as being mean for its own sake, whereas satire is mean for the sake of exposing the hypocrisies of society and its leaders. The episode provides a clarifying example, too, when Mr. Garrison is goaded into bombing and then not bombing Denmark with minimal difficulty, a clear comment on Trump’s quick flights of fury. Hypocrisy, it turns out, has been the driving force behind the multi-episode Troll Trace arc all along; the genius of the program lies in how it uses people’s own pettiness and nosiness against them. Danish hackers will put everyone’s private information online, but as the address opening the episode states, it can only cause them harm if they access it. Everything will be okay, “so long as we can rely on the rationality and the basic decency of the American people.” This, of course, is cause for panic.
The moral of the whole Troll Trace debacle, as is the moral of most South Park story arcs, is that people are full of it. Everyone, including the regular citizens who clutch their pearls at a violation of privacy, but only because it’ll expose their visits to Ashley Madison and casual use of racial slurs in conversation with friends. The Danes, too, are full of it: They rounded up America’s most vile trolls not to teach them a lesson, but to troll them back even harder. (The Rick Roll, by the way, is just culturally dated enough to be faintly funny again.) This is why we need irreverent cultural watchdogs to take everyone to task. You can argue that it’s sophomoric, gleefully stupid, offensive in every way, and you’d probably be right — but there’s no longer any denying that South Park, or at least what it represents, is valuable and worth having. Being righteously rude will surely grow more difficult in the next four years, and as it does, it’ll be that much more important.