“The End of Serialization As We Know It,” the finale of South Park’s ambitious twentieth season, closes with a speech about wiping the entire Internet clean and offering everyone a chance to start over. Troll Trace, the catalyst for the latest looming global catastrophe to confront this surprisingly consequential Colorado town, had threatened to expose anything and everything that anyone has ever said or done online. The town’s hard fought victory against the website guaranteed that risk of exposure, and the ensuing chaos, wouldn’t come to pass. With the threat extinguished, everyone can have a new start, a renewed chance to go on without all the baggage they’ve accumulated from years of surfing and posting and perhaps even trolling.
That sentiment echoes two articles, both of which are a few years old, but feel even more relevant now than when they were written. The first is a New York Times editorial entitled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It talks about the then-nascent emergence of social media and the way that the rise of what, in the salad days of 2010, was referred to as “Web 2.0” was poised to change things. The emergence of user-generated content as the engine of the Internet meant that more and more of lives was being preserved for the foreseeable future. Everything we posted threatened to become inescapable, destined to follow us and prevent us from living down our worst moments. The second is a satirical video from The Onion that presents the same idea in a much more succinct and amusing fashion, entitled simply: “Report: Every Potential 2040 President Already Unelectable Due To Facebook.”
They, and this episode of South Park, are getting at the same idea — that even though the Internet is an incredible tool that has changed the world, helping to democratize everything from art, to business, and even to politics, there are downsides to the digital lives we lead today. The way that so much of how we consume our media, how we work, and how we interact with the world, is filtered through our digital devices means not only that we’re easier to rile up, but that so much of what we do is captured forever, waiting to rear its ugly head and expose our weaker moments to everyone. That’s the central threat at the core of the show’s season finale.
Oh yeah, and it also involves Cartman fearing that men are going to be systematically subjugated by women, taken to Mars, and forced into “common joke mines” where they’ll be milked for their semen and used for their gag-writing abilities. It is still South Park after all. As much social commentary is baked into this finale (and this season) the show just wouldn’t feel like itself if there weren’t bizarre Cartman-centered conspiracy theories, kindergarteners spewing curse words, and a bunch of naked middle-aged men trying to save the world by insulting people online.
But amid that onslaught of the show’s usual enjoyably puerile humor, there’s an exploration of our ability as a society to forget and to let people move on. And there’s a sense that this is what series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone themselves want, as the title which suggests their serialization experiment is coming to a close, indicates.
Serialization has been a shot in the arm for this show. Though the execution has been rocky at times, it’s given South Park a new spark and made it feel more adventurous and substantive in the series’s old age. The show’s amusing one-episode riffs on the news of the week started to feel predictable, even tired, as South Park stared down the barrel of its second decade on the air. The creative exhaustion touched on in “You’re Getting Old” was evident, but serialization breathed new life and provided a renewed vigor into a show that debuted when the Internet was just starting to hit the mainstream.
Still, the title alone suggests that Matt and Trey are ready to forget too. They may not want to be shackled to the burdens of continuity and coming up with a story that makes sense from week-to-week, especially when having to deal with election surprises and other unexpected developments can change the game for a show this topical.
It’s clear that various elements of this season, from smaller bits like Bill Clinton’s “Gentleman’s Club” to larger ideas like focusing on the exposure of private communications and Cartman’s fear that women will take over the world, would have made much more sense in the shadow of a Hillary Clinton victory in the presidential race. It’s not the first time Matt and Trey have been burned in this fashion (they hit a similar roadblock when developing That’s My Bush, originally titled Everybody Loves Al), and it’s not hard to imagine the two of them growing tired of trying to balance the competing demands of six-days-to-air topicality and long form storytelling.
South Park, despite its sophomoric sensibilities, has always been a self-reflective show, working out its creators’ feelings about the series and the issues around it — whether it be censorship, brushes with Scientology, or creative burnout — via the series itself. So that desire to start over, to do something fresh and less beholden to the successes or failures or the inflammatory and embarrassing parts of what came before, seems to be coming from Matt and Trey’s own readiness to cast off the pressures of serialized storytelling.
It’s not hard to see why. As exciting as serialization has been, South Park has, for the third year in a row, had a bit of trouble sticking the landing. While Season 20 was more squarely focused on the same rough collection of issues than Seasons 18 or 19 were, it’s still tough to tie all those ideas and themes together and present a resolution to them in a satisfying fashion. Season 20’s examination of trolling and the disingenuous or inflated qualities of our online lives receives a solid, if not exactly revelatory conclusion. But bits like Cartman’s gynophobia and Garrison’s “that sounds like how I got elected” line feel thrown in extras rather than satisfying resolutions to these parts of the season’s adventures. (And what of the member berries, I ask you?)
Instead, “The End of Serialization As We Know It” does a better job at tying everything into one big world-saving plot than it does at delivering a satisfying thematic conclusion. Almost everyone has a part in preventing Troll Trace from revealing the world’s online secrets. Kyle and Ike get the ball rolling in an attempt to generate so much outrage through trolling of their own that it will overload Troll Trace’s servers. The force of their signal gets the attention of Dildo Shwaggins and his troll buddies, who help amplify it. A call to Butters reveals that there’s an impressive new energy source created by Heidi that could be the boost the effort needs. President Garrison and the Pentagon use their power to harness that energy (through appropriately fuzzy means) to channel it for use in Kyle’s efforts. And Gerald, the impetus for all of this, has a standoff with Lennart Bedrager, the creator of Troll Trace, and tries to turn off the breakers at the website’s headquarters to allow the power surge to go forward. With their combined efforts, sure enough, the day is saved.
That standoff presents the heart of the episode, with Gerald and Bedrager (who’s a stand-in for the new era troll-among-trolls) debating whether there’s a meaningful difference between well-deployed satire and merely hassling people. Gerald argues that “trolling” to make a positive point can be a good thing that exposes society’s hypocrisies and makes people laugh, while maintaining that using it for pure harassment and negativity is self-evidently bad. Bedrager rejects any distinction between what the two of them do, even if his methods are blunter, and posits that perhaps trolling is a “post-funny” form of humor.
Their exchange walks the line between earnestness and satire itself. It’s unclear whether, when Gerald seems to accept that there may not actually be a difference between what he does and what a pure trolling anarchist like Bedrager does, the creators of the show are admitting the same. South Park has been accused of simply trolling people for years, and as much as Matt and Trey may want to distinguish themselves from scores of self-amused, lulz-seeking, meme-wielding people online, they may be unable to draw as firm a line between what they do and what scores of far less clever Internet trolls do than they’d like.
Or maybe, Gerald’s confession is just the ultimate troll. Maybe Gerald (and by extension Matt and Trey) don’t believe the line of thought that he and Bedrager are peas in a pod. It turns out to be a ruse so that Gerald can reject the Bedrager’s nihilism, kick him in the crotch, and declare that the difference between the two of them is that he’s “fucking funny” before throwing the last switch to save the world. Maybe Matt and Trey still think their humor is what elevates them over the rest of the rabble, who toss around insults and dick-humor online in a much more clumsy fashion.
One thing is clear however — the folks behind South Park do appreciate, and even fear, the power of those trolls. The diagram President Elect Garrison’s advisor draws captures the “backlash to the backlash to the backlash” spirit of the Internet. It’s a visualization of the idea that by the time something hits your newsfeed, every possible angle of it has already been exhausted and perfectly positioned to push your buttons. But what’s most striking is the idea at the center of it — that the troll sets out to rile one person up using another and escapes being either the subject or the object of the ensuing wave of anger.
It parallels the conclusion reached in Sheila Broflovski’s part of the episode, where she represents a walking, talking version of that consternation and outrage. Despite all her frothing anger, she sees Ike’s clean internet history and realizes she’s been directing her frustrations in the wrong place. Before she has a chance to see what Gerald’s really been up to, Troll Trace goes down, taking the entire Internet with it. The trolls get off scot-free, while the people they’ve upset rage against one another and innocent folks like Ike suffer.
The end result is that the net is wiped out. Sheila doesn’t uncover what Gerald’s been up to online. Life seems like it will return to normal. Perhaps people can forget now; maybe with the threat of Troll Trace neutralized, they can put all this ugliness behind them, move on, and do better.
That wouldn’t be a very South Park ending though. The last thing we see is an old man being interviewed after he’s sent the first email of the new internet. He, of course, admits that he emailed his friend a picture of his penis and called him a “faggot.” That, in and of itself may be a sign of nihilism, or at least fatalism. There’s a notion at play that no matter how much we see the negative effects of trolling, regardless of whether it’s funny, human nature means people are just going to keep stirring the pot, not considering the way their worst selves may be preserved indefinitely in ones and zeroes.
But so ends what will go down as one of South Park’s boldest and most ambitious seasons ever. The road was often rocky, but the way that Season 20 managed to balance and draw connections between everything from nostalgia to trolling to feminism to the election to the new Star Wars film over the course of ten episodes is still an impressive achievement. Serialization may be at an end for South Park, in typically dramatic fashion, but there’s core parts of the show — a certain view of the world and a commitment to ribald humor in all its forms — that will always be a part of the series’s DNA, in whatever form it emerges next season, not to be forgotten.