Ever since 2014, South Park has been battling with itself. That was when Trey Parker and Matt Stone started experimenting with in-season serialization, an ambitious format change that has never quite lined up with their show’s joke first and ask later ethos. But it seems like this disconnect may be evening out. South Park’s divide across Comedy Central and Paramount+ proves there’s an avenue for this show to have its cake and eat it too. Whereas South Park’s specials offered viewers a staggering four-hour interconnected saga, in Season 25, the show is back to business as usual.
The divide between the series itself and the Paramount+ specials feels apparent from Season 25’s first episode. “Pajama Day” was a pretty by-the-books installment as far as South Park goes. Through no fault of their own, Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman’s class is banned from participating in pajama day — a school holiday that perfectly captures the incredibly dumb things kids adore. It doesn’t take long before Pajama Day becomes an allegory for mask mandates, with adults donning pjs to support the cause and attacking anyone who dares wear normal clothes. It would be pretty OK mask-based satire if it wasn’t for the fact that South Park has already spent four hours joking about masks, vaccinations, quarantining, and remote learning.
The season premiere was justifiably criticized for feeling tired. But as Season 25 has progressed, “Pajama Day” has felt less like a misfire and more like an intentional reset. We now have a South Park that has talked about COVID-19 ad nauseam as well as a season that’s more concerned with just telling jokes.
So far, there has been little serialization in Season 25. The cringe-inducing but admittedly sharp “The Big Fix” devoted its runtime to correcting a major series misstep by changing “Token’s” name to “Tolkien.” It’s rare for a show to gaslight its audience, and it’s even rarer for one to do it so gleefully. In contrast to those first episodes, “City People” wasn’t self-referential at all. The flood of New Yorkers to this quiet little mountain town was almost exclusively a commentary on today’s truly insane housing market and how dumb it is for city-dwellers to expect their new small towns to have the same luxuries of their old life. All three of these episodes are timely, largely self-contained, and ridiculous — a formula that has always defined classic episodes of this show.
There is one exception. “The Big Fix” saw Tolkien’s family move to the farm across the street from Stan and his family. One episode later, “City People” showed Cartman trying to sell Tolkien’s house while mentioning that they had gone to live on a farm. That glimpse of connectivity may hint at a larger overarching story. But already, that nod doesn’t feel as forced as what we’ve seen in seasons past.
These largely self-contained episodes are a far cry from the four hourlong specials we saw across Comedy Central and Paramount+. Whereas serialized seasons of the past always felt a bit clunky and disjointed, these specials made sense together. The pent-up frustration and near depression of “The Pandemic Special” flowed perfectly into the unhinged anger of “South ParQ Vaccination Special.” Paramount+’s two specials were even more connected. South Park: Post COVID and South Park: Post COVID: The Return of COVID were two halves of the same story. As Post COVID ended with Stan, Kyle, and Cartman learning what they needed to do to prevent their horrible future, The Return of COVID started with the trio forming a shaky alliance to right their broship’s wrongs. Aside from the series’ occasional two or three parters, this was the first longer form South Park story that really worked. When you remove the need to be aggressively topical, there’s more room to tell a cohesive narrative.
We’re still in the early days of South Park‘s Paramount+ era. It’s entirely possible that this new season may try for another overarching story. It’s equally possible that the two Paramount+ specials that will be released this year won’t connect to each other. They could even premiere a series of unconnected vignettes. It’s South Park, after all. Anything is possible. But with this new divide, it seems as though Parker and Stone have found a place where they can play and experiment while still giving fans exactly what they want.