Real catharsis is rarely seen in sitcoms today, much less in cartoons. They rely on the elasticity of their world. No matter what the situation, at the end of the hour everything and everyone has retaken its original shape. Since August of 1997, the never-changing, never-aging characters of South Park have facilitated such a function. Each week, we see these four boys (along with a number of ancillary characters) play out their conflicts to the end, free of consequence. However this week's episode entitled, "You're Getting Old" trades it's immortality for a release of strong, repressed emotion; not just for it's characters but for the very creators of the show. Although this kind of thing is rare, it's certainly not the first time we've seen it.
In August of 1996 (a year before the debut of South Park) The Simpsons were preparing for their eighth season. Having established its popularity earlier that decade, the show was now facing calls of stagnation from its critics and fans. In an attempt to remedy this, a network executive asked the writing staff to create a new character to live in the Simpson home. Instead they wrote "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show", an episode that addressed their anger of dealing with entitled fans, contradictory market research and the requests of know-nothing executives. The writers even went as far as to be animated into the show as Itchy & Scratchy's own lazy, put-upon staff. This episode became an instant classic and was lauded as a meta-triumph and brilliant satire of network television. Where The Simpsons dealt with stresses from the network, Trey Parker's dilemmas are based in his own standards and perception.
Stan and Kyle have always been representative of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's friendship and opinions. Although the boys haven't aged a day, their personalities have matured over the years, along with Matt & Trey. After fourteen years, two feature films and a critically acclaimed musical, he and Stone are no longer twenty-something college friends making funny cartoons out of paper. They've grown into well established, middle-aged men with wives and children; joylessly indentured to the burden of their own success. Parker & Stone have gotten more and more vocal about their long, deplorable hours and their own doubts with the finished product. This is all in order to support what they consider not just a TV show but a satirical icon with the ability to destroy convention and principle. "You're Getting Old" makes the case that maybe that's just not enough anymore.
All of Parker's feelings about the show culminate in a remarkably manic-depressive third act. His theme of everything looking and sounding like shit comes to it's peak in a string of coming summer blockbusters made to look exactly as they appear to many of us; Like last year's turd, warmed over and sent out again. Stan can't control what he sees and Kyle rebukes him for his changing attitudes. Finally, we see a maudlin confrontation where Randy and Sharon express the frustrations of the mobius strip that is their lives; "The same shit just happens over and over," cries Sharon. "Every week it's kind of the same story in a different way but it just keeps getting more and more ridiculous!" Her words are a thinly veiled reference to Matt & Trey's own frustrations with the show's longevity. Even more disturbing still was how accurate Stan and Sharon's feelings of disillusionment were; both in reference to the plot and to relationships in life. Be that as it may, the most disturbing sentiment came from the closing montage. Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" cuts through the viewer along with images of Stan's friends and family parting ways. It shows us that once you've lost what's important to you, it's hard to not see everything (even flowers and sunshine) as just a big pile of shit.
Despite Stan's maturation, it's not the first time Parker & Stone have tried to change things up only to return to normal. Season four saw the boys advance to the fourth grade, immediately discontent with their half-desks and grotesque, matronly teacher Ms. Choksondik. Things quickly devolve with the boys attempting to travel back in time in order to return to how things were, but are quickly convinced by their teacher to face new challenges in life. Nevertheless, Choksondik is killed off a few episodes later and the fourth grade quickly becomes exactly like the third. It isn't even the first time Stan's parents have split up. Season two had Randy and Sharon getting a divorce, only to reconcile the feelings that by this week's episode had been exhausted. Even Mr. Garrison's knee-jerk sex change was reversed a season later.
Many have started asking if this was an ultimatum from Matt & Trey that the show should end. Others wonder whether or not things will just reset themselves come next season. It stands to reason seeing as after Poochie's lackluster debut, Itchy & Scratchy returned to its normal format, resetting itself along with the Simpson household. The episode ends with Bart and Lisa once again cackling at their favorite cat and mouse. Just before close, Lisa leaves us with a thought that I and the rest of my cynical, bitchy, pop culture obsessed brethren should take to heart: "We should thank our lucky stars that they're still putting on a program of this caliber after so many years."