A terrific season of South Park came to an end with an episode which might have disappointed some for not being as outwardly dense as the exceptional You're Getting Old, which closed the mid-season, but was a lot of fun and once again subverted expectations with where the series is willing to go.
On the one hand, you could see this as yet another 'Cartman hatches a devious scheme which goes badly wrong' episode, seeing as how, having seen Kenny and his siblings taken away by social services, he comes up with a plan to be taken into foster care himself when he realises that his friend's absence means he is now the poorest boy in school. That was really the second plot, though, as 'The Poor Kid' was really all about Kenny and how a previously one-note character has slowly transformed into the series' most understated hero. It was also about fitting as many Penn State and 'Yo Momma' jokes as possible into a twenty-minute running time.
A recurring theme throughout this season has been how the boys have grown up - Stan growing cynical in the You're Getting Old / Assburgers two-parter; Cartman literally destroying the toys tethering him to his childhood in One Percent; now Kenny stepping up in his Mysterion guise to become not just protector of the world and his town, but his family. These are things which have had no visible consequences in the episodes which followed - this is South Park after all, not Breaking Bad - but have reflected on how the characters have naturally evolved as the series has progressed over its fifteen years.
When it first aired, the You're Getting Old episodes seems like Matt Stone and Trey Parker were expressing their creative exhaustion. Looking back on it now, with them having subsequently signed a new contract to continue South Park until 2016, it feels more like an ackowledgment of how people change and the way in which they deal with that change, even when their circumstances have remained more or less the same as ever. (Again, this isn't a programme which puts much, if any, stock in ongoing continuity). The four boys we watch today are not the same as when we met them back in 1997. Even the town is different, having been fleshed out with the kind of vast, vibrant supporting cast rarely seen outside Springfield. In a lot of ways, the series has come to live up to its name over those fourteen years on air, with the townspeople taking increasing importance and the four boys often being sidelined for entire episodes.
My circuitous point is that though 'The Poor Kid' could easily be taken as a formula episode, with Cartman doing his evil schtick (getting his own mother arrested) and myriad controversial jokes, it did a lot of work beneath the surface to function as the perfect capper for a season which has frequently looked at how the series has both evolved and stayed the same throughout its run.
While Kenny got to show off his newfound maturity - and his protecting his little sister, Karen, as Mysterion was one of the most touching things the series has ever done - the episode also didn't shy away from parodying the ways in which the series has settled into certain rhythms, either. Cartman's story was entirely formulaic, but also quite self-aware: in the social worker whom he had to go through to achieve his dream of being relocated to Hawaii, Stone and Parker seemed to be calling themselves out on how they repackage old jokes to fit modern controversies. It helps, of course, when the jokes are as funny as they were tonight, with Cartman's 'Yo Momma' one-liners providing many of the episode's biggest laughs.
In the family of fundamentalist agnostics - a superbly executed idea, right down to the hilariously ironic and slyly foreshadowed ending - there was just a hint of satire on how South Park likes to have its cake and eat it too: as has been most apparent this season in the One Percent episode, when the programme tackles a topical issue, it rarely takes a single side, preferring to mock all corners equally. Many people have tried to apply their own political or philosophical views to South Park - hell, look at all the analysis I'm doing here - but the truth is that, in its own way, it is fairly agnostic when it comes to offering a specific point of view. Everything is fair game, even itself.
'The Poor Kid' hit all the right notes to end what has been, ironically enough given its pervasive themes, a strong season of revival for South Park after a couple of years in the creative doldrums. It was an episode that was self-reflective and moving without being preachy and hilariously crude without lacking context. Looking back on itself has given the series a new sense of purpose and vitality which will hopefully continue for many years to come. Over its fourteen years, this small Colorado town and its population may have started as cardboard cut-outs, but by accident or design they have picked up quite a bit of depth along the way.
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