How South Park Found Success Through Serialized Storytelling in Season 18

Randy as Lorde South Park Season 18

For much of its first 17 seasons (give or take an “Imaginationland” or “Black Friday” trilogy), South Park has been pretty standalone with its episodes. Typically, the boys get into some sort of crazy situation, the most outrageous resolution ever occurs, and Kenny dies; that’s how things happened for a while–rinse, wash, repeat. However, that concept changed in the most recent season of South Park, the show’s eighteenth, as the animated comedy series embraced serialized storytelling  and continuity and became a better show because of it, producing one of its best seasons of all-time.

It’s not unheard of for comedy series to try out more serialized storytelling, especially in recent years. While most sitcoms of the past have been fine with essentially re-booting every episode, more recent comedies, such as Community and Parks and Recreation, have found themselves telling season-long arcs over multiple episodes, where characters’ actions directly impact what will happen next. Still, though, this is far less common in animated comedies (with the exception of new series like Rick and Morty and Netflix’s BoJack Horseman), which benefit from being familiar–viewers can check in at pretty much anytime and know the characters and enjoy what’s happening, even if they haven’t watched the rest of the season beforehand.

For most of its run, that’s been my relationship with South Park. I’ve always been a big fan of the show and admired the way that Trey Parker and Matt Stone could provide social commentary on serious subject matters in the most outlandish, crude, and flat-out insane ways possible, but I never found it to be appointment viewing. If I forgot to watch the show for a couple weeks in a row, it was no big deal, as I could just jump right back in as if I hadn’t missed anything.

South Park Season 18

That wasn’t the case with South Park in Season 18, though, as the season premiere saw Cartman, Kyle, Stan, and the rest of the gang creating a Kickstarter campaign for their company, “Washington Redskins,” a decision that saw immediate repercussions in the following week’s episode. The boys had essentially told all their classmates how much better they were than them, believing that they would make enough money to never have to return to school again, but when their company crumbled, they were forced to return to their classes and face their fellow students’ anger at them. In an effort to be seen as “cool” again, Cartman, Kyle, and Stan then decide to throw a party and have Lorde perform at it, leading to a very funny sight gag of Stan’s dad Randy dressed as the 18-year-old pop star.

However, what began as a one-time joke quickly grew into a season-long arc, as Parker and Stone chose to make Randy’s secret identity as Lorde (in response to criticism from Spin magazine) into the focal point of Season 18. And really it’s been Randy that has tied together the rest of the show’s plots, whether he’s insisting that the beer he is drinking is gluten-free (as he’s terrified of the possible effects gluten could have on his body, as shown in “Gluten Free Ebola”), or discussing with a big music executive how Stan’s addiction to Canada’s “freemium” gaming has taken away lot of the money that he’s made while being Lorde (a direct reference to “Freemium Isn’t Free”). It sounds weird to say, but the continuity within Season 18 made South Park and its world more real and interesting; it felt like there were actual stakes, no matter how silly or outrageous they were.

And by tuning into every single episode and catching every joke, big and small, I was able to enjoy the Season 18 finale to its fullest extent, as almost everything from the episodes came together in a wonderfully weird crescendo. Did the finale bite off a little more than it could chew? Most definitely, but the season leading up to it made the two-parter feel like a can’t-miss event. For the first time in a long time, South Park has become appointment viewing again for me, and it’s all thanks to the serialized storytelling of Season 18.

Photos via Comedy Central

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