After a few episodes of South Park’s 20th season, I wrote a piece for this site in which I praised the show’s ongoing serial storyline for both its ambition, and its ability to keep viewers in suspense about what the overall message was going to be. At that point in time, it looked like the show was building up to its most epic season ever, as there were multiple intriguing story arcs going on, involving Gerald’s trolling, Cartman becoming woke, Trump/Garrison running for President, and of course, the infamous member berries. After two seasons of experimenting with ongoing stories over the course of the season, South Park was finally going to deliver The Big One. Unfortunately, it never quite panned out that way.
While this season certainly had its moments, there were a number of flaws that kept it from reaching its full potential. For one thing, it took far too long for anything to happen. Once the Gerald trolling plot became the main focal point, it moved at an extremely slow pace, as everything seemed as unnecessarily drawn out as possible. We kept waiting for Shelia to discover what he’d been up to, or for the Danish to reveal what they were going to do to him, but it just kept dragging and dragging, with the infamous RickRoll punchline (which they repeated twice!) feeling more like an insult for the audience than for the trolls. While this story had plenty of intrigue, Matt and Trey dragged their feet to the point of madness, taking us to a point where all we wanted was for it to be mercifully over already.
Additionally, the show also made the questionable decision to make every episode a cliffhanger. While it’s one thing for the audience to understand that the story is ongoing and won’t be completely satisfied until the end of the season, it’s quite another to not give us any satisfying conclusions to anything whatsoever, and perpetually to keep everything in a state of flux. For comparison’s sake, while Season 19 had a main story that wouldn’t be satisfied until the final episode, there were plenty of smaller, self-contained storylines that were handled in the space of a single episode, like the Tweek and Craig Yaoi plot, or Kenny getting a job and using the money to buy a doll for his sister. This season refused to give us anything like that, instead just getting us a little bit closer to the conclusion each week. This might have made things more suspenseful, but it also made things less satisfying in the moment.
Of course, Matt and Trey seem to be somewhat aware of these problems. In one episode, Kyle gave a speech where he complained about how long everyone had been focused on trolling, which included the line “this isn’t South Park!” Additionally, the final episode of the season was entitled “The End Of Serialization As We Know It,” implying that the show may be returning to self-contained episodes for Season 21. While it’s encouraging to see that the issues with Season 20 have been acknowledged, one might wonder if going back to the original format is the right move. Sure, Season 20 had its flaws, but there were still a lot of good ideas at the heart of it, even if they weren’t always executed in the best way. And even if this season perhaps took the serialization aspect a bit too far, the first two were quite strong, as the show produced episodes that could be enjoyed on an individual basis, even if they were part of something larger. Perhaps returning to the more loose serialization of Seasons 18 and 19 would put things back on the right track.
At the same time, it’s not hard to see why Matt and Trey might want to do away with the story-arcs once and for all. Consider the best episodes of the show, like “Scott Tenorman Must Die” or “Christian Rock Hard.” These episodes were near-perfect 22-minute pieces of comedy, and it’s unlikely they would have had the same impact if they were just part of an ongoing thread. While a long-running arc can lead to a satisfying conclusion, and give the creators more time to make their points, there’s something to be said for packing as much comedy as possible into a single-episode plot. South Park did that brilliantly for its first 17 seasons, and if its creators want to go back to that format, one could hardly blame them.
The 20th season of South Park came in carrying a ton of hype, and while it was far from horrible, and certainly had some high points (Gerald trolling while rocking out to Boston was amazing), it couldn’t quite deliver. It lingered on its main plot for too long without giving the audience enough to cling to in the meantime. Additionally, the surprise victory of Donald Trump threw the season out of whack, as Matt and Trey were clearly planning for a Hillary victory. The result was a conclusion that, while amusing, also felt a little rushed, as though they were in the mindset of “Well, we have to end this thing somehow.” The show’s three serialized seasons have brought plenty of intrigue, while also shaking up the formula considerably, but this time around, it felt like Matt and Trey bit off more than they could chew. Whether that causes them to revert back to remains to be seen, but even though season 20 wasn’t their strongest effort, this duo has a strong enough to history to leave us confident that their next move will be the right one.