With South Park having become serialized the most recent season placed greater emphasis on storytelling, while using real world events to maintain their topical edge. Season 20 focused on the presidential race, paralleled with the complications of Internet trolling. The end result was a show that had become self aware, and acknowledged the likelihood of existing, “in the post-funny era of satire.”
The show faced a curve ball when Trump won the election. Since 2008 South Park had produced their election episodes based on betting odds in Vegas. When Clinton lost they had to rework the episode with less than 24 hours to air. But I’m less interested in their portrait of Clinton, as she was depicted in her own likeness.
South Park has taken it upon themselves to include the sitting president, in addition to a number of other politicians, and their depictions, though crude, are fitting for the character they sought to represent. Bill Clinton looked like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush looked like George W. Bush, and so on.
Then we get to Donald Trump, and we’re faced with the complication of entity. The discourse of the 20th season goes back to the first Christmas special, and the first time Herbert Garrison asked if their township could, “get rid of all the Mexicans.” His anti-immigrant sentiments have echoed on, ever since.
Season 19 was the first to implement serialization through the entirety, and that story world was carried over into Season 20. In an early episode Garrison finds himself overwhelmed by the sudden influx of Canadian immigrants, suggests getting rid of them, and declares his desire to build a wall between Canada and the United States. He’s distressed by the fact that Canada has beaten him to punch, by building their own wall between the countries. It’s revealed that Canada has been taken over by a character known as ‘Canadian Trump.’ By the end of the episode Garrison has raped Canadian Trump to death, and begins his own campaign for the top office in the country with running mate, Caitlyn Jenner.
Season 20 began, and Garrison is tanned to a bronzed orange. Topical interviews and dialog are voiced through this character, as a deliberate entity of Donald Trump is never produced. This struck me, over and over as the season progressed. The writers had avoided the low hanging fruit of the previous administrations, rarely depicting any president as incompetent on a consistent basis, so why establish the distance of depicting a candidate by means of another character? Aside from Mr. Garrison and Caitlyn Jenner, every other reference to the contemporary political arena mirrored that of the real world. Even then South Park left some of the sensationalism to the media, as their depiction of Steve Bannon showed him looking over a clipboard, and making a simple statement about the transition going smoothly.
It’s sharp satire, because it defies expectations. Such expectations include a Trump figure in the likeness of real world Trump. By having put that agency onto a character already established in the story world, it allowed for the writers to play with the kind of atmosphere that cultivated the results we have today. They made sharper and deeper cuts than their late night counterparts, but were never called out by the Twitter prone President Elect. Though poking fun at Trump, it’s done so through the veiled obscurity of distance, a nuance not employed by late night comedians or other political satirists, which is why South Park hasn’t been on the receiving end of a Twitter rant (or the trolls that follow).
In a time when the President Elect decries negative commentary in the media, the obscurity of South Park has allowed them to make some scathing comments without personal backlash. It could be that South Park is just a silly little cartoon show, while Saturday Night Live is culturally relevant, but I’d argue that the distance established in how Trump has been depicted on South Park is the best bet for artistic media to criticize the coming administration without fear of repercussion.