NOTE: This post goes into extensive analysis, including MAJOR SPOILERS. If you have yet to view this recent South Park episode, please do not read forward. Otherwise, if you have seen it or do not care you are free to proceed.
Last night's mid-season finale of South Park, entitled "You're Getting Old" has ensighted a lot of discussion and speculation. There is only good reason for that, and most of it comes from the final moments. I myself am a fan of the show and have been since about the time I started high school. It should go without saying that this show isn't for everyone, working as an animated comedy for adults and relying on shock value and vulgarisms for it's humor, albeit among a sense of real-world satire.
"You're Getting Old" was a more disgusting and offensive episode than usual, relying on a single vulgar and graphic metaphor to base the entire story on. I won't get into the full details too much and risk repelling potential readers as I summarize this story. As Stan celebrates his tenth birthday, he starts to realize that the things he previously loved suddenly seem absolutely horrible. He's unable to do anything and have fun in the process, coming off as dejected every waking moment. This is particularly apparent when he goes to the movies with his friends, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman, and is unable to find anything appealing in even the trailers or sit through them without complaining. Meanwhile, his father listens to a CD recieved as a present, and tries to capitalize on the style of music on his own, performing at the bowling alley.
Really, the way it ended is what's leaving many fans confounded and dejected themselves. Most sitcoms resolve their conflicts within a single episode's runtime or at least in an arc of a few episodes, and South Park is no exception. But in this case, Stan is still as painfully cynical at show's end as he developed, with no signs of reverting to the attitude a child should have. The subplot with his Dad, Randy ends with an argument with the mother, Sharon in which the two decide that they're just growing apart. The closing montage has the two getting a divorce, Sharon retaining custody of the kids.
And this is despite the fact that this is only the mid-season finale, with another run of new episodes set for the Fall. Even more compelling is how Randy and Sharon talk about how every comical scenario the town gets into just feels like the same old thing repeating over and over. With such a final touch in mind, who can blame the fans unaware of the impending fall run for assuming this was the series finale?
Indeed, that was what the chatter among the internet was about. The ending felt like sort of a cliffhanger, but in many other ways just felt like one last development. Randy apparently left town after the divorce. The rest of the family moved to a new house and, apparently a new school. And we even got a touch showing Kyle somehow warming to Cartman as a friend, which is only more significant if you know what their relationship is like.
This was a real stark change in tone after relying on gross-out humor so much. And yet, this mood whiplash felt like it fit in so well. If it was meant to have any sort of closure to it, it was a real down note to end on.
It only gets more interesting the more you think about it. As many other commentators and critics have pointed out, it almost feels like creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are growing tired of doing the show (such an idea complimented by the immense success of their Broadway musical The Book of Mormon). Another fan pointed out how the show is different from other animated sitcoms, that it feels like Matt and Trey talking directly to the viewers as opposed to through a team of writers. With that in mind, he refers to this episode as "Having a conversation that you don't want to have, but know is true."
Only adding to these emotions is how the episode is the only one in this recent run to focus on the main protagonists, the original core of the show. The rest of the Spring run each covered various cultural events or situations, and did so through the perspective of supporting cast members such as Butters Stotch or Kyle's brother, Ike. I also saw another episode right before in which Butters was the focus, "The Ungroundable" from season 12. Cartman made a single appearance in the episode, but it mostly focused on Butters as he joins a vampire-inspired circle of popular kids and takes the culture far too seriously. In what seemed like the first episode reliant on Stan's interactions and behaviors in seasons, "You're Getting Older" sees him grow so cynical and distant from the rest of society. So much so that his last resort, his circle of friends reject him by episode's end and say he's not fun to be around anymore.
Certainly, the episodes slated for the fall will present the show in a new light. Such should go without saying, especially given the serious tone to the final montage and for a cartoon. We can all probably agree that it may mark a new direction for this show, if not a final lap altogether. This show may be evolving, and if it does go on only now does it seem to be really moving away from it's original characters and focus.