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‘South Park’ Stronger Than Ever

| Thursday, November 13, 2014

south-park-web-Susan Zhu | The Observer
We are lucky to be alive when South Park is still churning out new episodes. “But Jaaaaaaaaahn,” you drawl. “There are already 17 seasons of this poorly animated show!” And to that I would say, “There may be 17 seasons, and they may be poorly animated, and any self-respecting man would be hard-pressed to get through all of them. But South Park is more than a collection of brilliantly conceived, nuanced-with-each-episode characters. It’s more than haywire, unpredictable plotlines. It’s more than its barrage of pop-culture references. You see, my friend…South Park is now.”

Because South Park is written week by week, it can incorporate events and issues that have arisen a matter of days before an episode airs. This season has already incorporated gender identity, personal drone use, Ebola, Kickstarter, the gluten-free trend, on-call transportation services and freemium and virtual reality games into its storylines. The show’s wide cast of characters allow each issue to be attacked from a variety of angles, seamlessly infusing each with situational and character-based comedy.

Up until the end of last season, South Park had seen a dip in ratings. The show’s most popular, well-reviewed seasons — six through 11 — are somewhat distant in the show’s past, and although the following lull boasted a number of classic episodes, the show’s consistency had inarguably wavered. However, season 16 managed to jump back into the spotlight with a three-episode-parody of Game of Thrones and a wildly successful finale. Would the streak continue with the next season of South Park? The answer, magically, was yes.

The first episode, “Go Fund Yourself,” not only unveils the odd nature of Kickstarter companies and companies in general, but absolutely destroys the Washington Redskin’s argument for the necessity of their name. Recreating the brutality of the Native/early U.S. conflict through a football game (the owner of the team vs. the entire Cowboys squad), South Park writer Trey Parker demonstrates the extreme audacity of the Redskin’s claim in a way that is both disturbing and hilarious.

“Gluten Free Ebola” captures the Ebola panic by attaching the phenomena of spontaneous genital detachment and death to the consumption of gluten, simultaneously mocking trend-followers and trend-ignorers. “The Cissy” finds Cartman becoming transgendered in order to use the cleanlier elementary school girl’s bathroom, opening up a fantastic discussion of the impact of changing gender identities on established social institutions. Even while handling delicate, controversial subject matter, South Park maintains integrity by consistently providing dignity to social groups that suffer from stereotyping and persecution in real life and showing the depravity and stupidity of groups or individuals who are initiating and perpetuating such persecution.

None of this is necessarily new information for South Park fans. To sum it all up, Season 18 is off to a great start, with the strengths of the show in great form. However, there is an element of continuity that is pretty new to the show. Although South Park has a near-infinite pool of returning “inside” jokes, this season they’ve added a new sense of continuity – each episode directly draws from the plotlines of previous Season 18 episodes. This allows for strong running jokes, like Randy Marsh’s double life as pop star Lorde and the creation of the Cisgender bathroom, to be briefly and subtly used to great effect.

The newest episode, “Grounded Vindaloop,” aired yesterday. Possibly one of the greatest South Park episodes of all time, “Grounded Vindaloop” opens with Butters wearing an obviously-fake Oculus Rift headset in school while Cartman directs him around. Within ten minutes, however, the joke is magically flipped on its head: it turns out that Cartman is actually trapped inside of an Oculus-Rift virtual reality, and his prank was not on Butters but on a computer program emulating him. Throughout the rest of the episode, reality is repeatedly twisted. Nobody knows who is virtual and who is real, and the plot line’s complexity becomes increasingly frustrating not only to the viewer, but to the characters as well. “Grounded Vindaloop” is hilarious, incredibly self-aware and endlessly surprising, offering so much more than its half-hour running time would suggest. Thankfully, it’s just another spectacular entry in what is becoming one of South Park’s best seasons yet. Given the innate relevance of the show via its writing style and huge range of personalities, it looks like no matter how old it gets, the show must go on.

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