In Defense of South Park

In 2017, the two-headed monster of Donald Trump’s inauguration and South Park’s 20th anniversary prompted much hand-wringing over the show’s legacy. In the post-2016 rush to point fingers, a cartoon about the adventures of some potty-mouthed 8-year-old boys was made to bear at least some of the blame. Dana Schwartz tweeted that it was impossible to overstate the cultural damage of South Park’s portrayal of “earnestness as the only sin” and mockery as “the ultimate inoculation against all criticism”—and then, her point seemingly proven, she was descended on by trollsSouth Park didn’t invent the alt-right, Sean O’Neal wrote for The AV Club, “but at their roots are the same bored, irritated distaste for politically correct wokeness, the same impish thrill at saying the things you’re not supposed to say, the same button-pushing racism and sexism, now scrubbed of all irony.” For Lara Zarum in The Village Voice, the show’s misogyny—the creators “never seem content just to make fun of women; they relish sexually humiliating them, too, all while shunting the show’s female characters, young and old, to the maddeningly familiar role of disapproving nag”—is deeply tied to Hillary Clinton’s election loss. 

The consensus that seemed to calcify was that South Park’s corrosive influence on popular culture raised a generation of nihilistic trolls that revived American fascism for the lulz. At best, it inculcated a wilful apathy, political and otherwise. According to Lindsay Ellis, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone spent the whole 2000s “explaining that things were fine actually, both sides bad”: both symptomatic of, and feeding into, a wider apathetic cultural attitude towards social injustice in the 2000s. As Schwartz outlines, South Park has always skewered “both the left and the right—and anyone who believed in anything—as equally ridiculous. The smart people were those detached enough to know that everyone was full of it.”

There is some ring of truth to all this. The best of these critiques—like Zarum’s or O’Neal’s—are rooted in an acknowledgement that South Park is and has always been extremely funny, and that its cultural effect is not necessarily reflective of Stone and Parker’s intentions. But even still, a fundamental rift inevitably opens up between these arguments and my experience of the show itself.

I wrote about South Park, shock humour, and morality in art for Current Affairs. You can read it here!

The Sundae TV Awards 2021

We’ll not beat around the bush: watching TV was not as fun as usual for us this year. It can already be hard to get excited about the quantity-over-quality glut of Peak TV when there’s decades of classic TV to watch instead. But less new TV was released than usual due to the pandemic, so it was harder to just skim the cream off the top, and lots of ongoing shows we love didn’t release a new season, so we couldn’t even turn to our old reliables. Also, GLOW got cancelled in the middle of production on its fourth and final season for either no good reason or in retaliation for cast members criticising the producers for sidelining the show’s characters and actors of colour. Netflix said it was because COVID restrictions made filming a show about professional wrestling too logistically difficult, which was very hard to take seriously considering how many actual professional wrestling shows continued filming throughout lockdown. This has nothing to do with why TV was less fun this year, but it was a bullshit decision and we’ll be mad about it for at least a decade.

But life finds a way and there’s still been some fantastic television over the last TV season (June 2020 – May 2021). Enough that we decided to expand the awards to include two new categories this year. We’ve previously used special achievement awards to honour television that didn’t always fit neatly into drama or comedy categories. On reflection, the majority of that television comprises a general category of TV – the largest category of TV, in truth – contrasted with the narrative fiction of conventional TV drama and comedy. Our new categories will celebrate the best of reality, variety and documentary television, including game shows, professional wrestling and whatever Eric Andre is doing at any given minute. We picked our winners by consensus, so only shows we both watched were eligible to win, but we each picked a runner-up, regardless of whether the other has seen it.

You can find each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of the post. We recommend checking them out if you’re looking for recommendations. 

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