South Park has had a bunch of cultural ups and downs: every time it seems to be “out,” it comes back and becomes relevant again. (Most famously, the movie was made at a time when the show’s early fame had burned out and it seemed likely to be canceled. It came out, made lots of money, and gave the whole franchise a new reputation for cutting-edge satire, as opposed to the bad-taste absurdism it was famous for in its first year.) The last couple of seasons have, on the whole, been “out” seasons, and the rather lukewarm Tiger Woods season premiere didn’t change much. Joshua Alston in Newsweek thinks that the need to be topical and keep up with the news — the thing that separates the hastily-produced South Park from all other animated shows, with their longer lead times — has drained the comic edge out of the show.
I’d imagine that a day will come when South Park will consider a shift in its approach to line up better with audience appetites, one that emphasizes having the smartest take rather than the fastest one. Because even with its quick turnaround, by the time South Park gets to a joke, Stewart, Colbert, and Letterman, et al. have already planted flags there. And if you’re going to show up late to the party, you have to make a hell of an entrance.
I think there’s something to this, but I don’t know if it works as an absolute rule. Some of the weaker South Park episodes are the topical ones, but there are plenty of weak episodes that could have been produced at any time. (Every year the staff tries to do one “bank” show, a non-topical story that they can start early in the season and finish later, and it often winds up as a dullish episode, because Parker and Stone aren’t at their best unless they’re working on something at the very last minute.) If I see a more consistent problem with South Park of late, it’s that it’s leaning very heavily on one or two types of stories and comedy. Trey Parker does not have the most enormous range as a comedy writer-director, and there are several ideas he leans on very heavily, one of which is to have all the characters (except one or more of the kids) take something very seriously when it really doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously at all. So the season premiere had concepts like “no single man would ever want to cheat on his wife if he didn’t have a disease” and “sex addiction was created by a wizard alien” being discussed with grave seriousness, and… well, that accounts for most of the jokes.
Other South Park tropes that are used over and over: everyone acts like they’re in a disaster movie; Trey Parker devotes a scene or an entire subplot to some video game that he’s been playing; Trey Parker does an episode about some reality show he watches (Dog Whisperer, Whale Wars). As I’ve said earlier, I suspect this may just be what happens when two guys get to the point where they have no life experience any more to draw on, and spend most of their time making TV, playing video games, or reading Drudge.
Still, South Park remains entertaining and has still been able to come up with bits that catch on (the “Gay Fish” song most notably). And every time they seem like they’re going too far in one direction, they bounce back; remember how the Terri Schiavo episode restored their libertarian-hipster cred at a time when the creators were under attack (after Team America) for being too standard-issue conservative, and how they turned the departure of Isaac Hayes into a plus for the show, publicity-wise. Trey Parker will never be the great satirist some commentators thought he was back in 1999, but he usually retains… not an edge, but at least a way of freshening his basically limited (but funny) bag of comedy tricks.