Catching up on the new series of South Park this week, there was a part of one of the episodes that really struck me and got me thinking. This is unusual for South Park, which although quite intelligent when at its best, usually fades from the mind once the show is over. The episode was about falling cultural standards, and included James Cameron searching on the deep sea floor for the metaphorical ‘bar’ which has been lowered to such extreme depths in modern society. During the climax of the episode, there is a short scene between Stan and Kyle, played as an aside to the main action, where Kyle begins to question whether it was ‘us’ who lowered the bar. This little aside is significant, as ever since the beginning of South Park these two characters have been the representatives of the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. While Stan and Kyle have crazy familys and often get caught up in fantastic situations, they are both normal, grounded kids growing up in a world they can’t control, wondering why insane things always happen in their small town. Trey’s parents, like Stan’s, are Randy and Sharon. Kyle is Jewish, like Matt Stone, and both their respective parents are Gerald and Sheila. So in the scene mentioned above, the creators of South Park ask themselves if they have helped lower the bar, allowing popular entertainment to sink to lower and lower depths. They do have a point.
When South Park first came along in 1997, the show was very controversial due to its foul language and more importantly, children using foul language. Animated children swearing doesn’t seem too risqué nowadays, but when it first appeared in Europe as an American import, it brought along news articles from tabloid and broadsheet newspapers detailing its depravity, and the effect it could have on YOUR children. Animated shows aimed at adults were rare back then (in English speaking countries, anyway), with The Simpsons the only one to break into the mainstream at the time. Therefore when any adult cartoon appeared, the view was that children would end up watching it and see things they shouldn’t. The same is true for any show of course, animated or not, but South Park did make it very easy for the critics. The show was very different when it first began, with much more needless swearing and plots which seemed to exist only to see how low, degraded and disgusting the characters could get. In the first episode, the kids swear a lot, and then Cartman gets an anal probe. In other episodes Barbra Streisand shows up and attempts to destroy the town, and a librarian attempts to promote reading by ‘making love’ to chickens. There was a moral to every episode, however it did take a very secondary role to the disgusting and depraved acts which led to it.
The essence to South Park was there from the start: this mix of disgusting or farcical events which eventually contribute to some overarching (and often insightful) social commentary. All that has changed over the years is which aspect dominates in each episode. The best episodes have a fine balance of both, while the ones which are too much in one direction just do not work at all. South Park has been around for a long time now and has evolved significantly since it first appeared. There isn’t so much swearing these days, but the gross-out humour still remains. In another new episode, a character sells his own semen as a sports drink. Back in 1997 this would have raised Daily Mail campaigns, however now for South Park and any other similar show, it doesn’t seem that bad. In its early, adoloescent years when it was still learning about itself and discovering what it wanted to be, South Park lowered the bar. Now, with the aforementioned soul searching between Stan and Kyle, and for the first time, its creators seem to acknowledge that they themselves may have contributed to the lower standards that popular culture now holds itself to. This is ironic, since South Park has made its business out of satirising these falling standards for a decade and a half.
The reason that short scene in that episode of South Park resonated so much with me was because I watched it the day after the Red Bull Stratos event, where Felix Baumgartner skydived from the edge of space and landed safely back on earth. This was a truly spectacular piece of television, an amazing feat of human drive and endeavour. It was also something that lowered the bar, and perhaps irreversibly so. This was heavily sponsored extreme sports dressed up as a noble voyage of scientific discovery. Not only that, but every detail of Red Bulls coverage was specifically designed to evoke (second-hand) memories of the Moon Landing. This is even an understatement, for with aging skydive record-holder Joseph Kittinger featured prominently throughout, this coverage was inspired by Hollywood movies versions of space missions, where the old hero is brought in to bring the main character back safely. The YouTube commentator spoke in stoic, serious tones, constantly highlighting the scientific value of the mission. Felix’s preparations were shown in full, and confirmed professionally by his aging, storied supporting actor. He then stood at the top of the world, mumbled something that Red Bull marketing may have come up with, then jumped. During this jump, the stoic commentator, speaking as if from the 1960s, mentioned that the capsule used to transport Felix would also drop down, carrying all the scientific data that had been requested by researchers interested in the mission. It was a scientific mission, after all: in the ascent. The jump however was really just a stunt, performed by a professional daredevil, commissioned by an energy drink. This was reality television that was truly dangerous to society, and especially YOUR children: extreme sports masquerading as the eternal quest for knowledge.
There is a documentary (Six Days To Air) about Trey Parker and Matt Stones production process for South Park, where it is revealed that an episode goes from initial idea to finished product in six days, and broadcast on air that very night of completion. This explains how the show is able to keep impossibly relevant to current events. There are a few more episodes left in this season, so I hope tomorrow they start writing an episode based on Stratos, as it would be very interesting to see their interpretation. For the thing about South Park is that it has been around for almost 15 years, and has remained consistent throughout. In every season there are at least two episodes which contain truly cutting social commentary, so much so that it has got to the point where criticism from South Park cannot be laughed off by celebrities or politicians anymore. South Park is an elder statesman of the TV landscape. Maybe it has come to the point in its run where it sees the end, but at the same time looks back and wonders what effect it has had on popular culture, feels guilty and aims to salvage its legacy. South Park lowered the bar, but it is the number one social commentator on calling out others who do the same. They will never be able to raise the bar they lowered, but they can at least try to stop it from falling further.