How the Serial Format Has Made ‘South Park’s Politics Even Harder to Decipher

South Park is currently in the midst of its 20th season, and its third season using a serial storyline. Switching to that format in 2014 did wonders for a show that, after so many years, had been in danger of getting stale. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are now able to flesh out story arcs and character development far more than they ever could under the previous conditions. This change has also effected one of the most frustrating – but also kinda fun – things about being a South Park viewer: trying to figure what the actual message of the show is.

Since the show’s inception, this has been a hot debate. Generally speaking, what viewers think South Park is trying to say about the issues of the day boils down to two factors: whether they’re a fan of the show, and whether their views are liberal, conservative, or somewhere in the middle. If South Park’s humor works for you, it’s natural to talk yourself into thinking that Matt and Trey are on your side. Likewise, if the show never spoke to you, it’s easier to write it off as either being liberal or conservative drivel, depending on your personal proclivities. The real truth, though, as any longtime viewer will tell you, is that the politics of South Park are much harder to pin down.

For an example of this, let’s consider two episodes from the show’s 10th season: “Smug Alert” and “Manbearpig.” These episodes both have the same primary target: environmentalists. The first one mocks the arrogance of hybrid car owners, while the other makes fun of Al Gore, who at that point, had been experiencing a major career revival because of An Inconvenient Truth. The key difference in these episodes is that in “Smug Alert,” Matt and Trey make a specific point of making clear that hybrid cars themselves are actually a good thing, and that their beef is specifically with smug liberals who think they’re a hero because they drive a Prius. “Manbearpig,” however, makes no such conceit. It has Al Gore fighting a monster that exists within his own mind, leaving the viewer completely free to wonder if the episode is intended to be a denial of climate change. They easily could have closed this loophole by simply having Manbearpig turned out to be real, but they did’t. The fact that they would add a “P.S. environmentalism is actually good, we’re just tweaking hippies here” message in one episode but not in another makes it hard to figure what exactly their overall message is supposed to be. Chances are, Matt and Trey wouldn’t have it any other way.

With the transition to the serial format, they now have even more ways to throw viewers for a loop, because they can do it over the course of an entire season. In the season 19 premiere, we meet PC Principal, a vicious authoritarian who will violently attack anyone who doesn’t conform to modern social justice norms. if you stopped watching after this episode, you might have assumed they were making a “damn SJWs have gone too far!” type of message. However, by the end of the season, the narrative becomes more complex. We find out that PC Principal behaved this way because he was being manipulated, and the overall stance isn’t necessarily against political correctness itself, but more the idea that people can use the language of social justice for their own gain. Anyone who left in the middle of the season would have thought it was just a typical example of rich white dudes complaining about “PC culture,” but those who stayed for the long haul were able to receive the more nuanced message.

We’re only three episodes into the current season, and we’ve already seen similar twists. In each of the last two episodes, the show had a running gag in which person quitting Twitter was discussed the same way we would typically discuss someone committing suicide. At that point, it looks like the show is making an ironic point about how people sometimes overestimate the effects of trolling. Then, we see the Olympian that Gerald has been trolling actually commit suicide. It’s a rather jarring moment, forcing us to remember that while the impact of trolling can sometimes be overblown, that doesn’t mean it never has any devastating effects. At this point, it’s too early in the season to tell where Matt and Trey are taking things here. Chances are, they’ll throw us for a few more loops over the course of the next seven episodes.

If we’re being honest, attempting to figure what Matt, Trey, and the rest of the writing staff actually think about any issue is probably a losing battle. While they surely have some convictions that mean a lot to them, they’ve always seemed to make fun of people for caring about things in the first place rather than what it is they actually care about. While we’re at it, Matt & Trey probably have more fun having their fans hopelessly guess at what point they’re making than actually making any point. Consider Season 14’s “the Tale Of Scrotie McBoogerballs,” in which the kids try to write the most offensive story of all time, and then find everyone taking messages from it that they never had any intention of making. To say that Matt & Trey don’t care at all about the morals their show carries would be a bit of a stretch, but it seems rather the obvious that the joy of watching everyone guess at what they’re trying to say is what gives them their greatest pleasure.

Now, thanks to the serial format, they can mess with our heads even more. We’re just three episodes in, and we still don’t know exactly what they’re trying to say about internet trolling, we still don’t know what’s going on with Cartman’s sudden pro-social justice conversion, we still don’t know what motivated Gerald to start trolling people, and we still don’t know what’s going to happen with Wendy and Stan. In the next seven episodes, we’ll likely get the answer to all of those questions, and in that time, Matt & Trey will probably pull about five different plot twists that turn what you think the show is trying to say on its head. It might be a tad frustrating when you know that deep down, they’re just messing with us, but with the roll that South Park has been on lately, that won’t make it any less fun to watch.

How the Serial Format Has Made ‘South Park’s Politics […]