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In a way, Generation X, and its comedy, had cynicism thrust upon them: The leftover rebellious music and pop-culture relics of our parents' generation
informed us that the repressive values of grandma and grandpa's age had been triumphed over; but it was hard to look at our Reagan-electing, suburbia-worshipping parents and see ourselves as sons and daughters of rebels.
Cynicism was our third-way, a rejection of both conservative stodginess and liberal peity. And at its zenith, South Park fit that mold better than any other show on TV; able to slap the Boy Scouts around for their anti-gay policies and dress-down attorneys like Gloria Allred for jumping onto civil-rights cases for ego-feeding in the same episode. Do-gooders and butt-inskies were the targets of choice, regardless of affiliation; giving the show and its creators a sheen of snark-fueled libertarianism, back when that word called to mind something other than bitcoin-hoarding Silicon Valley delusionals, that led columnist Andrew Sullivan to approvingly dub fans "South Park Republicans."
South Park's ethos, though, is hardly conservative. If the series can be said to have an overlying message, it's a plea to calm down - about politics, about controversies, about everything. Parker & Stones humor consistently positions them and their heroes (well, okay, really just Stan and Kyle) as the sole rational actor amid battles where everyone else is wrong. To quote another famous cartoon character: "Everyone is stupid but me."
Hence its embrace of the above-metaphor'd "attack everyone equally" fallacy; which is a fallacy precisely because it presumes that everyone is both deserving of attack and deserving of the same attack. It's the same introverted, reductive reasoning employed by the guy who really, really wants to know why black people can say The N-Word and he cannot. "Park's" present-day issue, though, is with the P-Word: Privilege. The pleas for civility and middle-ground sound, as the series trudges on, less like "a pox on both your houses!" directed at squabbling special interests and closer to "will you damn kids keep that racket down?" directed at anyone who thinks anything is worth fighting over.
This was first seen most dramatically during the 2004 Presidential Campaign, when Parker & Stone made waves for mocking the "Vote or Die!" campaign organized by various celebrities of the moment and aimed at younger voters. Like any good professional cynics, their position was that voting wasn't really that important - especially since the candidates (George W. Bush and John Kerry) were supposedly so similar. On the show, the scenario was visualized as a mascot-choosing competition staged between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich. Ha.
Now, I'm certainly not looking to re-litigate that now settled election (the real one, not the turd thing) in this column. But I will point out how it nicely illustrates the disconnect of Privilege that began right around that moment to slowly transform South Park (though not necessarily making it "less funny," I stress) from the vital truth-telling youngster of TV animation to the grouchy grandpa old before its time: "Calm down! Life will go on! Things won't be all that different no matter who wins!" Well, sure, that was absolutely true... providing you're lucky enough to be a wealthy straight dude with reliable employment like Parker and Stone. But various other folks who might stand to benefit from this policy or suffer under another? Of course there was a "difference" for them - to suggest otherwise is ludicrous.
South Park is still funny. Occasionally, it's also still brilliant - though I feel like The Coon Saga might have been the point where the wave finally crested. But I do think that its moment as a meaningful cultural force has passed. It's been a long time since I watched a news event and anticipated what South Park might have to say about it... other than to groan. "Ugh. Can't wait to see Parker and Stone willfully miss the point on THIS in order to prove how much cooler than their reflexively-liberal Hollywood colleagues they still are!" That title was taken away awhile ago by The Daily Show, which evolved in the opposite direction; starting as scattershot "the news media is stupid" but growing up into a kind of weaponized political-comedy - activist-journalism with a clown nose.
Not that I really expect South Park to have some kind of epiphany over that, or any of this. It doesn't "need" to, and neither do it's creators.
After all, they have a free pass.
Editor's Note: An error caused this column to release late. Our apologies for the wait.