Consistency defined South Park’s 17th season. With a shortened 10 episode run, Trey Parker and Matt Stone streamlined their process and attacked a spectrum of targets, from religion and the Zimmerman verdict to Game of Thrones and the console wars, with concise and articulate shots at popular culture. Each plot escalated gradually and logically as clear points and hilarious commentary filled this season with some of the show’s best moments in years.
Story arcs on South Park use a strict code of cause and effect. Parker decides on a theme and writes to this simple rule: if he can place the words “but,” “because,” or “therefore” between each of his beats, then the story works. Take a look at the plot of “Ginger Cow”: Cartman tricks the world’s religions into peace after he stages a fake divine act, but Kyle knows his game. Therefore, Kyle goes on a moral crusade and becomes Cartman’s fart slave to keep the secret safe and maintain the peace. But because Kyle gets super self-righteous and messianic about the whole thing, Stan ends their friendship. “Ginger Cow” follows a rational progression for the comedy, and “but,” “because,” and “therefore” help advance the plot and keep things interesting.
Three-part epics have been central to South Park since 2008’s “Imagination Land.” Season 17’s “Black Friday” trilogy takes on consumer frenzy by way of an extended, and hilarious, Game of Thrones parody. The combination of George RR Martin’s epic storytelling techniques, small-town and schoolyard politics, and video game console wars created a series of beats that exploded with perfect jokes on Game of Thrones’ phallic obsessions and corporate controlled madness. “Black Friday,” “A Song of Ass and Fire,” and “Titties and Dragons” expand something simple, like what kids want for Christmas, and turn it into something violent, smart, and funny – also, Randy Marsh ran around screaming “Stan,” which always kills. Parker turns Black Friday into a war on the consumer, and, through Game of Thrones, finds a clear way to frame his story.
Parker and Stone like to make loud, blunt points. While they use metaphor, allegory, and satire to parody, once things have spun completely out of control, Parker likes to summarize his ideas with a button message, traditionally given by Stan or Kyle. “Ginger Cow,” worked because Parker wrote a trajectory of cause and effect and backed that up with a suitably hilarious parody of religious conflict and a never-ending performance from the reunited Van Halen and David Lee Roth. For the most part, season 17 married a message to an exaggeration and found the proper way to get the point across. “Black Friday” produced so many laughs, because Game of Thrones provided a solid backbone to the ideas and allowed Parker to create a world of warring factions, betrayal, and espionage. However, the less logical the transition, the more uneven everything feels. As strong as its premise, “The Hobbit” lacked a clean transition between Wendy’s outrage towards female beauty standards and Kanye West’s defense of Kim Kardashian. Wendy’s mad that the third graders prefer photoshopped images of women to the real thing and suddenly recovering gay fish Kanye West appears? Much like the season premiere, “Let Go, Let Gov,” West’s motives make sense, but the two plots coalesce in a smooth way. Parker and Stone never nailed down a “but,” “because,” or “therefore” and as a result the episode stumbles. Clear links between the A- and B-plots keep us engaged, and without those links, “The Hobbit” felt disjointed.
Standards for 17th seasons don’t exist, but if they did, South Park would have exceeded them. Parker and Stone know what works and what doesn’t by this point, and the closer they stick to their structure, the better things turn out. Few shows, let alone cartoons, have been this good for this long. South Park will be two decades old by the end of its contract, and if these past episodes indicate anything, it will be as strong as ever.