Both culturally and creatively, South Park finds itself in a curious position. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s iconically crass, iconoclastic Comedy Central animation staple was surprisingly (and quite disappointingly) stunted by last year’s debris of chaos, insanity and disillusionment. In a world where Donald Trump became the President of the United States, the impossible happened: the real world got crazier than South Park, and Parker and Stone simply couldn’t compete. Especially with an overly convoluted, thematically un-compelling and generally unfocused serialized narrative that provided diminishing returns by the week.
South Park, the game-changing satirical series that changed television as we know it today, needed a change-up. Would season 21 restore its social relevance?
Based on its amusing, if not especially entertaining, season premiere, not really. At least, not yet. Continuing the serialized narrative they suggested they might leave behind, while defiantly avoiding Donald Trump as they explicated stated they would, South Park newest season premiere, “White People Renovating Houses,” tows a fine line between staying politicized and keeping the focus squarely on the Coloradoan kids. The result, expectedly, is a little uneven.
Pointedly attacking the ignorant white nationalists that terrorize our nation, while also poking fun at Amazon Echo’s Alexa and an endless array of HGTV-hosted home makeover reality series, namely Property Brothers, 2017’s annual visit to (not quite) everyone’s favorite snowy Coloradian town sadly doesn’t quite pack the punch we expect from Stone and Parker, yet it also doesn’t set itself up to fail quite as easily.
The focus is more narrow; the characters are more central. South Park is — and always will be — Parker and Stone’s soapbox to complain about a world-at-large they can never really understand (or, rather, really want to understand). South Park‘s relevance is seemingly dwindling, and the creators seemingly kinda know it. But their immediacy is sharp as ever, and even if they aren’t punching quite as high as they ultimately should this year, they still aim to strike a couple blows. Season 21 likely isn’t going to be remembered as one of their best, brightest or funniest, but it’s still a fun time.
After the hectic, high-stake events of season 20, South Park‘s newest outing decidedly keeps itself lower to the ground. We see Kyle, Kenny, Stan, Token, Butters, and Token laughing their heads off at all the silly, inappropriate comments they can elicit from Alexa’s voice. If you were expecting some resolution for the ‘Memba Berries or how things are going inside the White House for Mr. Garrison, then you’ll find yourself disappointed by sheer lack of closure. In fact, the only thing that really crosses over between seasons is Cartman’s ongoing coupling with Heidi — though it’s one that has quickly grown tiresome for him. Dazed and jaded, Cartman’s only sense of gratification comes from his Her-esque relationship with Alexa. He won’t admit as much, but he’s falling madly, deeply in love with the Amazon machine.
Meanwhile, Randy and Sharon have started their own home makeover series, White People Renovating Houses, seemingly because everyone else in the world has their own show as well. They’ve proven themselves successful, but not for long. That’s because several of South Park’s underemployed redneck personalities are, once again, pissed that Alexa “took our jobs!” Outraged, they storm the streets waving Confederate flags and wielding fired torches.
With the mob constantly in the background, Randy fears these white protesters will ruin White People Renovating Houses‘s success, mainly because it’ll give white people a bad name. Or, rather, a worse name. As a means of compromise, Randy and the rest of the town promises to give them jobs. In order to do so, however, they’ll need to discard their trusted Alexa machines — much to the dismay of a lovestruck Eric Cartman. From there, things with Heidi only seem to get worse.
Moreso than even the last couple serialized seasons, this episode feels like seasonal set-up. The jokes aren’t quite as biting, and the plots aren’t as inspired either. It’s only in the second half of this middling episode that the gags really start to land, and by then it’s a bit late. Sure, it’s enough to save the episode, but not enough to make us completely won over after last year’s recent failures and shortcomings.
Since South Park (or, rather, Parker and Stone) won’t admit that it’s a political show, “White People Renovating Houses” does make a promising point to attack some of its fans, who spill hateful comments on Twitter with Cartman avatars or credit the long-standing animated series as the source of their “lol, nothing matters” worldview. We are a generation that was raised — at least partly — on Parker/Stone’s satire, and South Park is slowly recognizing the gravity of what exactly that means.
They’re no longer the outsider opinion; if anything, they’ve become more mainstream than they could ever imagine. And that’s a lot to process, which is what makes season 21 seem like a hopefully therapeutic opportunity for Parker and Stone to delve into their social/political impact while discovering different ways to backtrack what they’ve helped create. But this newest premiere, which is quick to point at the white nationalists and admit that they’re not right, is still a little too… dare I say, soft and unassuming for its own good. We don’t need South Park to play it safe, and that’s not exactly what South Park does this time.
But they don’t poke or prattle as much as they should either, and it’s a shame above all else. South Park has nine unmade episodes left to make a real difference, and while this isn’t a failed start, it’s not the singing success it should be either. The show is ready for a bit of a renovation, and hopefully Parker and Stone can make it work. Because the house that built South Park isn’t as sturdy as it used to be.
South Park season 21 doesn't promise to be as controversial or edgy as previous years — nor is it as wild as it should be at this point — but there's still enough comedic sustainability to warrant another trip back to this Colorado town.