• Butters and A.W.E.S.O.M.-O on 'South Park'. (SBS)Source: SBS
South Park isn't all fart jokes.
Nathan Jolly

26 Sep 2016 - 1:56 PM  UPDATED 27 Sep 2016 - 11:10 AM

Few television programs in history have courted and sparked more controversy than South Park. Over 19 seasons, the cartoon has drawn ire from most major religions, races and parental groups for its unflattering depictions and lampooning of various groups of people.

Showing Steve Irwin with a stingray barb through his chest a mere seven weeks after his death wasn't the most sensitive move, either. But everyone grows out of juvenile humour, and as the show aged, it began to expose a more tender side. At times, South Park can be outright sweet.

The introduction and elevation of the Butters character gave creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone a conduit through which to add more increasingly touching moments. Butters was often played for laughs, his wide-eyed optimism rubbing nicely against the more adult cynicism of Cartman and co. One of the more memorable Butters episodes was in season eight, when Cartman dresses up as a dodgy box robot named Awesom-o to trick Butters.

Butters' parents are aware he is being played, but continue supporting the ruse in order to protect his innocence. At first it is quite funny: how can this dumb kid be so easily fooled? But as he increasingly becomes emotionally invested in the friendship, it gets harder to watch.

By the time he sings the below musical number - especially the line, "he's metal and small and doesn't judge me at all" - you'll be hard pressed not to have a lump in your throat.

Butters also talks Stan out of a post-breakup depression with some sage advice. In the season seven episode "Raisins", Stan has spiralled into malaise after his girlfriend Wendy unceremoniously dumps him. It takes Butters - also dealing with a recent breakup - to talk him back to life.

"I'm sad," he tells Stan after rejecting the premise that life sucks, "but at the same time I'm really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It's like, it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. And the only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt something really good before."

That's a hard attitude to argue with, and the first sign of his optimism being tempered with an understanding of the human condition. Pretty insightful for a 10-year-old who still pulls his pants down to his ankles when peeing.

Parker and Stone even twist their most tired joke into a surprisingly emotional episode. Despite watching their friend Kenny die a violent death in each episode, when it appears he might actually die for good, the gang struggles to come to terms with it.

Stan in particular can't bear witness to his friend's reduced state, racing out of the hospital after seeing Kenny hooked up to machinery - refusing to visit him again.

The show treats them as 10-year-olds encountering death for the first time, and plays it straight… mostly. "What are we supposed to do," Stan cries after fleeing the hospital. "Stand in that room and keep making small talk? Make believe like everything's okay? I can't do it."

Kyle tells Stan it's hard on everyone, hardest on Kenny, and that he can't leave. Stan counters with a heartbreaking: "I'm not the one who's leaving, he is!"

A pep talk from Chef about the random cruelty of God convinces Stan to visit Kenny, but he is too late. Stan is overwhelmed by guilt when he hears Kenny's final words were "Where's Stan?", and the show lets us sit with the kids' confused grief. "He just... stopped breathing. And it was over," a shell-shocked Kyle recounts.

The show later revisits the subject of childhood death, with the demise of five-year-old Nelson to cancer in the season 10 finale. It remains one of the hardest episodes to watch.

They don't always shoot for such easy Hollywood-style pathos. Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the series comes in season four, when Chef moves to change the town's openly racist flag - featuring four white figures hanging a black one on a gallows - only to be met with resistance.

Chef is disgusted, and believes his town to be racist. He is further incensed when Stan and Kyle side with keeping the flag during a school exercise. When Kyle makes his argument that "the flag shouldn't offend anyone, because killing has been around since the beginning of time", Chef explodes with anger, telling the kids they had missed the point entirely.

As they explain their thoughts, it dawns on Chef they didn't at all see it as a racial issue, and that the skin colour of the man being killed didn't even register as an important factor to them. "They were so not racist that they didn't even make a separation of black and white to begin with," he marvels.

It's a powerful and hopeful message, and was the earliest indication that South Park could masterfully balance social justice issues, genuinely touching moments, and… fart jokes. Without any of these elements in place, the show would have fizzled out within a few years.

As it stands, South Park is one of the most comprehensive mirrors of our society: sometimes ugly, often unfair, and - in fleeting moments - completely beautiful.


Season 20 of South Park airs Thursdays at 8:50pm on SBS 2. All episodes are fast tracked to SBS On Demand on Mondays.

Missed the last episode? Watch it right here:

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