Twenty years is an almost unprecedented length of time for any television series to survive. Of course there are the never-ending soap operas on daytime TV. And sure, "The Simpsons did it!" But for South Park to not only survive for 20 years, but thrive and continue to maintain a rabid fanbase is a pretty impressive feat. Every Simpsons fan will agree that the show's best years are well behind it. But South Park somehow manages to be as hilarious and insightful now as it was in the late '90s.
It's All A Matter Of Time
From the very beginning, South Park distinguished itself from its animated sitcom peers with its willingness to push further and harder against the boundaries of good taste. But there's only so long a show can coast by on the shock value of featuring a group of third graders tossing out F-bombs and chatting with a sentient piece of fecal matter.
The crux of South Park's enduring appeal is threefold. First, the ability of showrunners Trey Parker and Matt Stone to skewer any and all aspects of pop culture and politics is unparalleled. Pick a hot-button issue from the past two decades — from the war on terror to the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal to Kanye West's boundless ego — and the show has lampooned it at least once.
Even religion has never been a taboo subject. The show has attracted praise and criticism in equal measure for controversial episodes like "Trapped In the Closet," which parodied the Church of Scientology and its ties to actor Tom Cruise, and "201," which featured the Muslim prophet Muhammad in its climax (a sequence that was ultimately censored by Comedy Central).
Second, there's very much an equal opportunity quality to South Park's humor. Parker and Stone are just as happy to direct their attention to self-absorbed liberal celebrities as they are blowhard right-wing politicians. The recent Season 19 was a perfect reminder of that fact, as it featured an overarching storyline starring a villain named PC Principal and his militant brand of enforced tolerance. There's even a contingent of fans who have christened themselves "South Park Republicans."
But third, and perhaps most importantly, is South Park's uncanny timeliness when it comes to spoofing current events. Thanks to the magic of computer technology, most episodes are conceived, written, voiced, animated and completed in the span of a single week (sometimes as few as three or four days). While that process is no doubt hellish for Parker, Stone and the dozens of employees who make up South Park Studios, it's allowed for the show to respond to current events with amazing speed and efficiency. Compare that to shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy, where individual episodes require months of production.
The first major example of the show's wicked efficiency came with the 2000 episode "Quintuplets 2000," which spoofed the infamous encounter between the US Border Patrol and the family of Elián González that took place a mere four days earlier. Other notable examples include 2003's "Christmas in Canada," which referenced the capture of Saddam Hussein three days after the fact, and 2008's "About Last Night..." which starred a victorious Barack Obama a mere one night after he won the US presidential nomination.
The other benefit of this timely approach is that the show has a very loose, almost improvisational feel. Parker and Stone don't plot out their seasons in advance. They simply sit down on Thursday, hours after the previous episode has aired, and begin plotting out next week's adventure. "Once you have a moment to second guess yourself, we would just sit around and look at our stomachs for a month," Stone told Fortune Magazine. "It's better this way."
Thinking About The Future
South Park has managed to hum along for two decades without missing a beat. Is there any reason to assume the show won't continue along the same path for another 20 years?
Perhaps. Parker and Stone occasionally become embroiled in other passion projects, including the 2004 puppet comedy Team America: World Police and the 2011 Broadway smash hit The Book of Mormon. South Park's sporadic schedule allows the duo plenty of downtime to work on these projects, so there's always a concern among fans that the two will eventually lose interest in the inhabitants of South Park, Colorado and their colorful lives.
And not necessarily without cause. The 2011 episode "You're Getting Old" featured one of the series' main heroes, 10-year-old Stan Marsh, growing disillusioned and alienated from his friends. Many critics took that as a sign that Parker and Stone were themselves becoming alienated from the massive franchise that had consumed their creative lives for so long. That conflict wrapped in the follow-up episode, "Ass Burgers," as Stan dejectedly returned to his old life and found himself turning to the bottle as a way of dulling the pain of his pointless existence.
Luckily, Parker and Stone have denied that those episodes were intended as metaphors for their own views on South Park, and the show has since returned to the air for several more seasons. The seasons have grown shorter over the years (now clocking in at 10 episodes each compared to the 13–18 episodes of earlier seasons), but the show remains a fixture on Comedy Central. And it'll continue to be for at least a few more years, as the network recently renewed South Park through 2019.
It helps that Parker and Stone have shown an increased willingness to push the boundaries of what fans expect from these seasons and experiment with new storytelling approaches. Take 2012's "I Should Never Have Gone Ziplining," which featured a surreal live-action sequence with real actors portraying Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny.
There's also the increased emphasis on serialized storytelling. Historically, there's never been much continuity at play on the show (hence why Kenny was killed off in nearly every installment of the early seasons). Accordingly, Season 18 surprised viewers by delivering storylines that continuously referenced and built on the events of previous episodes. That paved the way for Season 19's PC Principal conflict.
It appears that this approach will continue in Season 20, which premieres on September 14. Early word suggests the new season will focus on a prolonged presidential race between Principal Victoria and Mr. Garrison, one that will surely see the show draw heavily from the heated battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
South Park is also enjoying a second life in the video game realm. While early attempts at translating the series into interactive form were mostly forgettable, 2014's South Park: The Stick of Truth elegantly blended the show's sense of humor and distinctive animation style with Final Fantasy-style game mechanics. A superhero-themed sequel called South Park: The Fractured But Whole is arriving on December 6.
The South Park 20 Experience
Luckily, fans don't have to wait until September to bask in the glow of new South Park content. The show is coming to San Diego Comic-Con in a big way this month. Here's what you can look forward to:
- An interactive exhibit called "The South Park 20 Experience" will be held at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Promenade Park (across the street from the San Diego Convention Center) from Thursday, July 21 to Sunday, July 24. The exhibit will allow fans to take pictures in front of a variety of life-size scenes, sample The Fractured But Whole and potentially appear in a new mini-documentary.
- In the nearby San Diego Wine & Culinary Center, fans can visit the Hulu Viewing Lounge and watch their favorite classic South Park episodes. The building will also host a South Park-themed art exhibit curated by artist Ron English.
- At SDCC itself, The Nerdist's Chris Hardwick will host the South Park 20 panel on Friday evening at 5 p.m. (located in Hall H). The panelists will focus on the franchise's evolution, answer fan questions, and offer a sneak peek of The Fractured But Whole.
In short, there's plenty to keep South Park fanatics busy in the months ahead.
What is your favorite South Park controversy?