When the foul-mouthed youth of “South Park” first appeared on American television screens back in 1997, the pop-cultural landscape was quite different. Dialup Internet access was the norm at home; the average cable subscriber received 46.5 channels. The show squarely aimed itself at any target it could, from Kathie Lee Gifford to boycott-minded parents, creating outrage and drawing in viewers in the process.
“South Park” started off by satirizing something close to America’s heart: The Christmas season. Two short Santa-themed clips, created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, made their way around Hollywood and VHS-trading circles and led to the show’s eventual debut on Comedy Central all those years ago.
So it makes sense that the finale for the show’s 18th season, which aired Wednesday night, took on the old network saw of the big, splashy holiday special — the type of show that brings together disparate stars in an effort to unite families in front of a single screen for the purposes of cross-demographic cheer — while casting a wary eye toward the audience-driven future of entertainment, and the executives who take the fleeting interests of youth as gospel.
“#HappyHolograms” picks up a few threads from this season of “South Park,” which seemed creatively revived during this fall’s 10-episode go-round, thanks to its picking targets that at times seemed somewhat oddball — people convinced that the savant-like New Zealand pop star Lorde is older than she claims, “freemium” games that lure players in with the promise of free play before charging them to pass certain obstacles, the card-trading showdowns of “Magic: The Gathering.” But the somewhat niche nature of the objects satirized by the show allowed the jokes to cut deeper, resulting in double-take-derived humor that proved to be much more satisfying than a repeated catchphrase.
“It’s the holiday season, but the good times are ending/ because what matters most isn’t what’s good, it’s what’s trending,” Kyle intones over a montage of his younger brother watching “South Park” provocateur-in-residence Eric Cartman — in his new guise as “Cartmaan Bra,” a microcelebrity who lures in viewers by shouting disjointed catchphrases over video-game footage — and his parents peering into their tablets and phones. “All the family is scattered/ and the living room’s dying,” he continues, turning “The Night Before Christmas” into an elegy for both his youth (his questioning leads to him being called “grandpa,” even though he’s not yet in middle school) an important American ritual: Watching television as a family. Eventually, Kyle’s lament culminates in the hashtag #savethelivingroom.
This setup allows it to make sense for Bill Cosby (or at least a holographic form of the former primetime linchpin) to show up and promise to help Kyle on his quest to... well, not necessarily achieve the lofty ambitions of his hashtag, but to at least get it “trending,” that measure of online success with a vague, algorithm-cloaked definition. (The social-networking service Twitter defines trending as “the hottest emerging topics of discussion on Twitter that matter most to you,” which is a bit of a reach, as any social-media user who’s been frustrated by the incomprehensible hashtags and names cluttering up their newsfeeds’ sidebars can tell you.) In order to achieve this, a holiday TV extravaganza is planned, complete with FCC-flouting name. The ensuing show-within-a-show allows “South Park” to take on the allegations surrounding Cosby, the way that holographic representations of dead artists like Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson have been trotted out to entertain live audiences, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and the firestorm surrounding racial profiling by police officers.
“Trending” is invoked over and over by executives and laypeople alike, although with each mention of the term, the meaning of the word becomes more and more opaque — at least fuddy-duddy audience measurements like the Nielsen ratings had numbers attached — and more of a way for entertainment executives to throw up their hands at the current state of affairs. (Which seems like a clever way for Parker and Stone to show their own frustration at the way their creative environments have shape-shifted over the last 17 years.) Nevertheless, “Cartmaan Bra” winds up trending so heavily that he transcends the small screen and becomes an omnipotent source of metacommentary. The reasons for his being mentioned so often are rooted in the way the audience absolutely loathes him, a nice call-out to the value-neutral nature of online attention and the backfiring of “feeding the trolls.”
“#HappyHolograms” was almost too stuffed with gags and callbacks, although one could argue that the barrage of jokes about a holographic Kurt Cobain, the Swedish YouTube celebrity PewDiePie, and gluten (among other topics) was appropriate to an age where focusing on a 22-minute show is made difficult by screens jam-packed with commentary, advertisements, and Wikipedia rabbit holes.
And really, “South Park” isn’t entirely blameless in the current state of affairs; its initial breakthrough happened in large part because of the way it put pop-culture on fast-forward, delighting a generation that hadn’t realized it was looking for a sharper, quicker take on the effluvia surrounding them. “#HappyHolograms” succeeded in part because of the way it winked at that notion — though as Kyle’s empty-living-room-occasioned existential crisis reveals, there’s more going on underneath those rapidfire jokes.Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @maura.