Spoilers for the midseason finale of South Park below:
So I just cried at the ending of a South Park episode that involved, among other things, a piece of poop pooping on another piece of poop. One more item off the bucket list!
“You’re Getting Old” was one of those episodes that managed to combine the many different things lesser South Park episodes do individually: pop-culture parody, scatological hilarity and stories about childhood. But it also found another gear by doing something South Park episodes don’t often do—advance actual change in its characters’ lives—by having Stan turn 10, see his parents split up and discover that everything in life literally looks like crap to him.
That last part first: on the one hand, it was another example of how South Park builds on a disgustingly gross premise until you either recoil or break down laughing from the sheer extremeness of its commitment. (Especially late-era South Park, though of course the fecal obsession is in the show’s DNA going back to Mr. Hankey.) But it also introduced the idea intriguingly, in a way that invited the audience to ask how much they buy into the same kind of cynicism it was depicting. I’ll admit that I’m so inured to hearing things described as “crap” and “shit” that I didn’t really even notice it in the early dialogue about Tween Wave: that sort of thing (the dismissiveness, not just the vulgarity) is just part of the atmosphere now.
When Randy listened to Stan’s forbidden CD and literally heard the sounds of defecation, I thought I knew where the episode was going: another South Park episode might have parodied tween music by portraying a fad of music that was actually composed of poop sounds. The Stan saw his doctor, and the episode made clear that it was going after something less topical and more personal: relative perceptions, and the transition in a person’s life in which one has to struggle against souring on everything in the world.
In the AV Club review, Sean O’Neal links the episode’s theme to modern culture: “The Internet has turned nearly everyone into a cynic.” I’m not sure I’d buy that, but there’s definitely an argument that the instant dissection of all experience online encourages a kind of protective dismissiveness. (Maybe not “everything is shit” so much as “everything is meh.”) But in any case, another South Park episode might have focused on just that: a commentary about how some specific topical cultural artifact—blogs or Twitter or whatever—was forcing us all to see the world as a parade of turds.
“You’re Getting Old” was not that. As the title said, it was about something more universal and timeless, but also specific and personal: growing up and dealing with change. Stan is becoming a pre-adolescent and that’s part of this, but the episode made clear that that was not all of it: he’s also dealing with this because he’s Stan, and some people just have to wrestle with this kind of feeling—which seemed like depression as much as cynicism—and others happily don’t.
What’s more, Matt and Trey didn’t spell out the problem as simply Stan seeing the world falsely: yes, he hears Bob Dylan and Tween pop alike as crap, but the episode also did a good job of showing how cynical culture breeds cynical audiences, in the contemptuous trailers for the mythical Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey movies. (“Rated Arg for Pirates. F*ck you!”)
The episode didn’t wrap up typically in a what-it-all-means conclusion, since usual suspect Stan still has no idea what it all means. Instead it hints at the problem in the stunningly genuine last dialogue between the Marshes: it can be a crap world, and there can be a lot of crap to slog through as you get old, but you have to care about something. This, for all its snottiness has been a regular theme of South Park (think of the Mormon episode that bashed the religion for a half-hour, then confronted the audience with the positive difference it had made in one character’s life).
But it has rarely sent the message this affectingly, right down to the surprisingly apt use of “Landslide” in the closing montage. (Others have commented that this felt like a series finale, and whenever Parker and Stone do make one, they are going to have a high bar to clear now. The last few minutes felt like something Freaks and Geeks might have done if it had had more explicit poop jokes.) “You’re Getting Old” was simultaneously one of the most juvenile episodes South Park has ever done, and possibly its most mature. I never expected to end a South Park episode feeling so melancholy, but well done. This episode was the—well, you know.