My first reaction upon seeing one of the stills that Comedy Central released prior to “South Park’s” 20th-season premiere was, “Oh boy, here we go.” The picture in question shows Cartman, the show’s pudgy embodiment of selfishness, prejudice and cowardice, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Token’s Life Matters.”
Said remark doesn’t mean I’m expecting tonight’s episode, titled “Member Berries,” to be worthless or outstanding. Truth be told, I expect to tune in at 10 p.m. with a combination of anticipation and maybe a slight touch of dread on behalf of Token, the only black boy at South Park Elementary. That also means “South Park” is still doing its job and doing it well.
Rarely do we have any idea of what any new episode of “South Park” is going to be about. The fact that Comedy Central released a couple of photos and two preview clips is a small miracle. But the previews indicate the Black Lives Matter movement is top of mind among the well-intentioned denizens of mostly white South Park, Colorado.
It will likely fall to Stan, Kyle and Kenny to sift through whatever ill-conceived stupidity is dreamed up by the town’s adults, including the promised plot point of an American icon rebooting the national anthem, informed by San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest.
A trailer released yesterday on YouTube included a segment of this new anthem, which is lacking the original’s poetry.
Consider its lyrics: “Colin Kaepernick is brave/ Cops are pigs, cops are pigs/ Wait, someone just took my stuff/ I need to call the cops./ Oh no, I just said cops are pigs/ Who’s gonna help me get my stuff?/ Why did I listen to Colin Kaepernick?/ He’s not even any good./ Oh, I just got my stuff back/ Cops are pigs again, cops are pigs/ Colin Kapernick’s a good backup.”
“South Park” has never favored subtlety, and it’s no secret that Parker and Stone vehemently detest any group’s attempt to impose specific behaviors and politics on the masses.
That viewpoint gelled in Season 19’s serialized arc, written and directed by Parker, which introduced a muscle-bound hyper-liberal bro named PC Principal, while also making points about the insidious creep of gentrification and exposing the snobbery of urban progressives. One gag involved Cartman's mounting an all-out assault on the principal using pregnant Mexican women, Syrian child refugees and a very handsy Jared Fogel as his ground forces.
But that anthem segment cogently models the animated series’ successful method of attacking hot-button issues, pandering to no particular view but those of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Its lyrics are aggressively unclear about being for or against Kaepernick’s protest. Instead they capture the sense of the dominant culture’s confusion surrounding what this modern civil rights push is about, how to be an ally and whether doing so means being anti-police. (By the way, it doesn’t.)
Casual fans may be used to Parker and Stone’s unapologetically hyperbolic approach to satirizing extremes by now, but the two have also earned a level of trust at this point that each half hour’s outlandish jumble of commentary and metaphoric gags will distill into a nugget of keen, oddly sensible insight.
This is why “South Park” still has teeth, if not edge, nearly two decades into its existence. Conservatives and liberals have claimed and rejected the show with equal vehemence, as have practitioners of just about every religion; it’s still banned in India.
But repeats, syndication and streaming services have made Comedy Central’s second-longest running series ubiquitous enough that those rejections don’t even register. Casual viewers enter each new visit to “South Park” hoping to be shocked, tickled and left speechless, and tonight should be no different. People holding onto any perceived slights tossed in their direction might as well not watch at all.