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I was thirteen years old when the adult animation South Park premiered on UK television. I remember the kids at school being immensely excited by it, a feeling to which I quickly succumbed myself. It seemed altogether new, even revolutionary. To our childish minds, the obscenity and scatological humour of the first season was ingenious, interesting, bold. It was like the Simpsons, but for bad people, those who find humour in darkness and the depraved.
It took me only a couple of years to become bored of South Park’s provocative style. Upon leaving school, I suddenly seemed to find that jokes about excrement and boobies were no longer novel or amusing. Without any taboos left to break South Park lost much of its power and appeal.
When I recently returned to watching the series (upon the recommendation of friends), I was pleased to discover that the show has changed considerably since my high school days. The humour, characterisation and mission of the series has matured and evolved into something intelligent and even vital. It seems South Park is these days less concerned with flatulence and breasts (although both of these remain features) than with political and cultural criticism, particularly of the faux-liberal and regressive Leftist worldview so exhaustively advertised and endorsed by other sitcoms and satires.
Uniquely among shows of its kind, South Park has pursued of late an admirably consistent libertarian rationalism; one that could be hardly any more different from the hypocritical conformity of rival programs like Family Guy and The Simpsons. Against convention, the show has ridiculed the mob-mentality of political correctness, the lethal denial of Islamic aggression, and the damaging excesses of environmentalist and egalitarian dogmatism.
So impressive has this radicalism become, in fact, that a real-world political tendency has been attributed to the show’s influence. The phrase ‘South Park Republican’ is now well understood and defined in circles of political commentary. The phrase denotes those who, while they are opposed to the more absurd and outdated aspects of social conservatism (such as blind opposition to gay rights, marijuana use and open sexuality), nevertheless believe that the right isn’t wrong about the economic and ideological fundamentals – for example, the fact that Western World is superior and infinitely preferable to the Third World, that capitalism is superior and infinitely preferable to communism, and that ‘racism’ – as a word and concept – is largely empty of meaning and routinely abused for cynical political gain.
Unsurprisingly, South Park’s approach has not passed without controversy. On numerous occasions the cartoon has been roundly condemned by journalists and network executives alike for overstepping the boundaries of the acceptable. Perhaps most famous of these occasions concerned the episode ‘Cartoon Wars’, which featured (or intended to feature) an animated caricature of the Prophet Muhammad alongside renderings of other religious figures such as Jesus and Buddha. Despite the plot of the episode being relatively benign toward the Islamic Prophet (or at least no more mocking or malicious than toward the other featured characters), Comedy Central (the company behind the show) declined to air the episode without the condition that Muhammad be completely obscured behind a black rectangle.
It doesn’t really matter that South Park ‘lost’ in that instance. Their attempt at religious satire exposed a very real hypocrisy in the liberal media. We are better off for them having tried.
I believe South Park’s willingness to fill in the gaps left by more politically correct shows like Family Guy is almost certainly the reason for its continued success. In a world where sacred cows are too often left unbutchered, bravery of this kind will always be worthy of praise and attention.