"South Park," a cartoon that is and isn't about four little boys in a Rocky Mountain hamlet, begins its 16th season Wednesday on Comedy Central.
Sixteen years of "South Park — it began so long ago that Patrick Duffy was the subject of a joke in its second episode — sounds even more amazing than 23 years of "The Simpsons," given the younger show's habitual profanity, vulgarity and violence. But that is also obviously part of its appeal and, indeed, often its very point.
What's kept both these small-town allegorical comedies valuable and viable over their long runs are qualities they share: a disregard for empty authority, skepticism regarding beliefs not based in fact, an impatience with hypocrisy and cant, and the happy realization that the worst aspects of humans both as individuals and (especially) as institutions can be played for big laughs. And if "The Simpsons" is the warmer of the two series, that is all right with "South Park."
Eric Cartman (perennially enraged sociopathic conniver) speaks with a character clearly meant to be Bart Simpson (in "Cartoon Wars, Part II" Season 10):
Bart-like boy: "I'm a pretty bad kid."
Cartman: "What's the worst thing you've ever done?
"I stole the head off a statue once."
"Wow. That's pretty hard-core, jeez. That's like this one time, I didn't like this kid, so I ground his parents up into chili and fed it to him." (So he did, in "Scott Tenorman Must Die," from Season 5.)
With its famous six-day production process, "South Park" is also the more topical cartoon — in 2008, it aired an election-themed episode that quoted from President Obama's victory speech the day after he won. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone like to name names, of both people and the corporations who are now people too, the specificity of their targets prompting the disclaimer that opens every episode: "All characters and events in this show — even those based on real people — are entirely fictional."
Although it takes an army, running at a sprint, to bring "South Park" to life, to an extent rare for television it remains very much the work of its creators, who script, direct and produce the episodes and provide the voices for all the male main characters. It lends the show a consistent, which is not to say unevolving, vision.
And though its semi-homemade look — a computerized interpretation of the construction-paper/felt-board look of the pilot — has grown somewhat more refined in order to keep pace with (if always several steps behind) advances in TV technology, a kind of garage-rock/uncle's barn homeliness maintains. It is certainly not a show that feels worked over or which appears to suffer from second thoughts.
I was not a fan to begin with. It seemed to me at first that Parker and Stone were merely showing off, like children pulling down their pants or saying bad words at a grown-up party. (The pilot episode concerned alien anal probes and was full of bad words so, really, that was not too far off the mark.)
But eventually I began to see a method in its crudeness, and its excesses as the road to a palace of wisdom — that is, when it was not just pulling down its pants and saying bad words. (Comedy Central bleeps the conventionally most objectionable language, but almost every episode is available uncensored at the show's home page, http://www.southparkstudios.com.)
If "South Park" is vulgar partly to make a point about vulgarity, and provocative to make a point about the right to be provocative, it is also vulgar and provocative for the sake of being vulgar and provocative. At times, it's simply mean — calling Sarah Jessica Parker a "transvestite donkey witch," for example.
Anything less would be, in a way, disingenuous. The series' deep and shallow streams run side by side, as in the fifth-season episode "It Hits the Fan," in which a common slang word for feces is pronounced 162 times (an onscreen counter keeps track). There are myriad interlacing points made about language and society and media; but it's funny because they keep using that word.
The theme was revisited and elaborated upon last season in a pair of dark and moving episodes in which Stan, having turned 10, begins to lose his taste for life — he is diagnosed as suffering from "cynicism" — and, in a metaphor made brilliantly concrete, has begun to see the world and its products literally as excrement. "When all the things that made you laugh just make you sick, how do you go on when nothing makes you happy?" he wonders.
There is something quite breathtaking, and I mean this seriously, about the poignancy Parker and Stone achieve by filling the screen with pictures and sounds of defecation. Oddly, it feels like ... maturity.
The episodes that followed suggest that, like the death that used to regularly come to Kenny, Stan's affliction is not permanent. But it's clear that "South Park," which has been renewed through 2016, has territory left to explore and has not lost its capacity to $%@#$ with us.