subvert. 1: to overturn or overthrow from the foundation; 2: to pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith.
—Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Seventh Edition)
With well over 100 episodes under its belt, South Park could just punch the clock. But the 10th season’s first two episodes, “Make Love, Not Warcraft” and “The Mystery of the Urinal Deuce,” revealed that it’s nowhere near done taking aim at substantive targets, including the Bush administration and its own audience. These episodes showed that South Park still targets social issues, political causes, and celebrity culture. In “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” the target was unfit children, in “The Mystery of the Urinal Deuce,” government corruption and conspiracy theories.
In the season premiere, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny slept only three hours a night for three weeks to play an online videogame, while their parents remained oblivious. Stan’s never knew what he was doing, while Cartman’s mother gladly provided Hot Pockets and held the bed pan for her son when he suffered explosive diarrhea. As the boys grew pimply and fat (Cartman got fatter), the gaming company focused on finding more consumers. Everyone was at fault, from kids to corporate suits.
In the second episode, “The Mystery of the Urinal Deuce,” the government got its tires slashed. The boys’ discovery of a kid who went “number two” in the boys’ room urinal led them to uncover who really was responsible for 9/11. With more twists than a Grisham novel, the plot took them from one crackpot theory (Cartman blamed Kyle) to another (the U.S. government faked it). In the end, the guest-starring “Hardly Boys” found the real culprit by following the erections they got when mulling over various mysteries. “I’m getting a raging clue right now,” said one Hardly Boy. “Let’s follow it.” The parody of conspiracy theorists extended to U.S. leaders who refuse to share information, as well as the consistently gullible “American public,” leading the boys to realize that “one-quarter of the American public is retarded.”
While such targets seemed easy enough, these episodes of South Park also took on its audience. “Make Love, Not Warcraft” poked fun at the gamers who make up much of the show’s audience. Likewise, “The Mystery of the Urinal Deuce” noted repeatedly that “one-quarter of the American public is retarded.” It featured a power-hungry George W. Bush executing conspiracy theorists in the name of sowing such confusion about the truth that no one would question his version of it. The episode had the public at large believing the more insane theories, such as the “Kyle did 9/11” theory.
How does South Park cast blame about so broadly and still have a place on a network? One reason may be that not many people are actually watching. Consider that the notorious Tom Cruise episode (March 2006) drew an increased audience of 3.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That’s half as many as play Warcraft, the online game featured in the new season’s first episode. And while that number would be a failure on network television, it was huge by cable standards.
Acting like the snarky kid in the back of the class shooting spitballs, South Park has found a small, rabid audience. Since its fourth season, South Park has provided more hard-hitting satires of prominent targets than any other program. Despite or because of its sharp accusations, it tends to remain unnoticed by mainstream media, as only a handful of people are paying attention. Only those shows where targets speak up—Tom Cruise or Isaac Hayes—garner much attention. South Park indicts everyone who claims to “know what’s right,” whether on the left or right, faithful or secular, child or adult. While its small audience tends to agree with this take-no-prisoners approach, the show consistently pushes viewers to reevaluate their assumptions and biases. And it uses diarrhea to make its points stick.