If you caught last night's mid-season finale of "South Park," you might have – like me – spent the better part of the morning on Twitter, among an endless blizzard of tweets speculating the end of the decade-and-a-half running animated series after "You're Getting Old" seemed to indicate that maybe, just maybe, the beloved series was coming to an end.
Save those britches, first off, because another 7 episodes are still due for this 15th season, the 15th year of Comedy Central's greatest creation. As its predecessors before it have shown, when any series – but particularly an animated series – runs for 15 years, the gimmick is going to be threadbare. "South Park" episodes are written on the fly in the days leading up to each airing, which certainly adds to present relevance and subversive spark, but how far can one take the characters we've become so surgically familiar with over the years?
There's only so much shocking you can do once you've gotten your viewers accustomed to seeing children eat their parents, human centipedes, a thousand different gruesome deaths and so on. There's little surprise in the idea that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have gotten tired of the whole thing.
That brings us to the plot of Wednesday's episode: Stan has recently turned ten years old, and along with the double digit status he's lost all passion and enthusiasm, resulting in his being ostracized by friends and fitted with a proverbial dark cloud over his head. His existential crisis is delivered in a barrage of sh*ttiness, with heavy use of fecal humor and the "S" word to mask the foundation-rattling fact that Stan, the show's perpetual logic equalizer and conflict sedative, suddenly finds everything to be devoid of worth and meaning. He's seen the formula to it all, he's caught on, and he's realized that it's all useless, false, flying piles of sh*t.
The same crisis begins unfolding with his father Randy, whose desperation to get into his kid's music for a fresh flavor in his life unveils a deep, resentful disconnect with his wife. Sharon is unhappy too, and soon it becomes clear that there's some serious tectonic movement beneath the gargantuan piles of sh*t.
The show is outwardly self-aware of its own self-imposed obstacles, creators and characters serving as their own critics, copping to a lack of passion – or perhaps turning the finger outward to the viewer, who has grown and inevitably changed in the span of the show's run. It's been more and more ridiculous each week, and when the dam breaks when his beloved "Tween Wave" (cough*DubStep*cough) music suddenly sounds like the complete ass that it is.
The sh*t jokes just kept going, and going, with scaling levels of gross, as we come to realize that the kid is just growing up. His dad, meanwhile, is regressing to a teenager's mentality in a grotesquely desperate attempt to feel relevant and cool. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Randy and Sharon are actually going their separate ways. They have split up before, but that was an entirely different scenario, and a peripheral device for another plot.
But this felt like more, and not simply because Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" played as the final montage of scenes unfolded. There was no standard concluding "You know, I've learned something today." No wisecrack at the end, just a scene that's utterly heartbreaking to anyone who's watched the show through thick and thin: Sharon and Randy actually do go their separate ways, complete with quiet moments of humorless explanation with the kids, moving van, packing up the house and saying goodbye. Stan doesn't resolve his conflict, and even a quiet solitary moment at Stark's Pond does nothing to ease his sh*tty mind.
Even more ominous is the fact that, for what seems like the first time, Kyle and Cartman seem to enjoy each other's company.
I'm only half-kidding.
"South Park" has certainly served its purpose over the years, and Trey & Matt couldn't be faulted for wanting to end it after the next half-season stretch. But they serve an invaluable purpose, one which America needs as a compass to the pop culture herds. Celebrity crushing episodes such as those targeting the Jersey Shore brats and Paris Hilton are immortally untouchable classics that will live on in bittersweet poignance as long as our culture continues to deify vapid, soulless whores. That is the Hanzo sword of brutal lampooning that Stone & Parker still possess, the magic that enables their prolific continuity and prolongs their vital necessity in the fabric of our entertainment culture.
Somehow, it just doesn't feel as if we'll return in a few months with the Marshes back together, Kyle and Cartman hating each other, everyone acting like this never happened. Does this mean we'll be seeing a move into a different, somehow more mature era of the show? It's highly unlikely, but if anyone can pull off a 15th round uppercut to the formula, it's Parker & Stone.