I sort of tapered off watching South Park toward the end of its last run of new episodes, as the show's quality has really eroded over the last few years. But thanks to the whole Isaac Hayes controversy, I tuned in to this week's season premiere, and while I found parts of it pretty funny, I think it serves as a good illustration of the show's problems. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are so obsessed with responding to controversial events and making topical statements that they often rush to get their opinions out there and sacrifice plot, character and (most importantly) humor to make jokes that are on top of the news. The show ends up less like a scripted narrative and more akin to a late night talk show monologue, with content that is instantly dated within a few months (or even weeks).
Articles about the show these days almost always mention Parker and Stone's ability to turn an entire episode around in something like six days, thanks to the computer technology they use and the fact that they are the only writers and essentially the only voice performers. While that kind of flexibility is no doubt creatively freeing, and is always depicted in the press as a positive thing for the show, I think it's become something of a crutch for them. Just because you can turn around an episode that quickly doesn't mean that you should, and certainly a lot of the episodes of the last few seasons (especially the topical ones) could have benefited from a little more than six days of creative effort. I am usually right in line with Parker and Stone's left-libertarian politics, but even when I am agreeing with everything they say I often find myself bored and annoyed because they simply have one point (and one joke about it) that they repeat over and over for 22 minutes. Invariably the best recent episodes have been the ones that have nothing to do with political issues.
Now maybe the Isaac Hayes situation is an exception, since it has such a direct impact on the show. It's hard to imagine that they wouldn't respond to it in some way, and they did manage to do something clever with the recycled sound clips of Hayes' voice. I admit I laughed a number of times. But the Scientology parody was less effective because they'd already done a more pointed Scientology parody (which was what set this all off in the first place). And it ended up sort of feeling like a chore, like, "This is going on and we have to respond to it so let's get it over with." And that's how so many of the political episodes feel to me: like Parker and Stone feel obligated now to comment on current events, so they do it whether it makes for a clever episode of the show or not. At one time, their political insights were refreshing, incisive and hilarious; I still think that the South Park movie is one of the best satires in recent cinema. But what happened with the movie, which is that they were praised as much for their political commentary as for their humor, seems to have gone to their heads, to the point where they now fancy themselves pre-eminent political satirists. Which, y'know, they really aren't. They're guys who make vulgar jokes about fourth graders, and they're damn good at it, and I wish they'd spend more of their time on that.