Whenever I try to discuss my affection for the long-running comedy, one of the biggest problems I come across is how difficult to pronounce how or why I find the characters in the microcosm that is South Park intelligent, funny and even loveable. This is a show that just produced one of it’s most emotionally resonant episode ever and it featured an adult using farts in a song and and literal shit as a metaphor. This is similar to Glee, a show that at-first glance appears to be the very opposite of crude and thematic, but the way both shows attempt to manipulate the audience into emotion and reasoning be it earned or no, is interesting. South Park used to be a pop-culture phenomenon when it first began, putting Comedy Central onto the map and used it’s buzzed about status to childish but evolving intelligence to arguably form the ideals of millions of people who tuned in each week to see who was being hated upon, what message was being learnt and how Cartman can up his dickish tendencies. The same applies for the smash Sophomore hit Glee, it’s garnered a larger and perhaps even more influential place in our media with traces of it being felt in gossip magazines all the way through to crowd-filling concerts with a demographic that can reach from children to elders and it can use the episode to argue points about homophobia and equality all while trying to tell a simple story.
Obviously, being a musical each week Glee has an unfiltered adoration of musical spectacle, from Journey to Wicked to Britney Spears. Something that the Matt and Trey behind South Park also share in form of mostly alt-rock, but their love for classic ’80s and even Billboard Top 40 shines through the shows history. Besides the creators behind lyrical with performance, that adoration shines through and if I’m allowed to quote wikipedia (due to lack of source)
[Trey] Parker says that the varying uses of music is of utmost importance to South Park. Several characters often play or sing songs in order to change or influence a group’s behavior, or to educate, motivate, or indoctrinate others. The show also frequently features scenes in which its characters have disapproving reactions to the performances of certain popular musicians.
Amusingly, but not surprisingly, that applies to Glee. Ryan Murphy and Trey Parker are of similar age (45 and 41, respectively) so they grew up consuming the same mainstream pop culture, which may have lead to them developing cynical outlooks against positive backdrops: Glee is about the underdogs, kids coming together, being snarky and laughing it off because they can pull together in the techicoloured McKinley High. The show, like South Park, works as a microcosm for larger America, and as South Park uses it’s vibrant city to shower the audience simple but usually comical imagery, it more successfully turns headlines and ideas into overblown narratives that hinge on the characters darker edges.
That is, however, just on the macro level, the parallels are more striking when you look at the structure of both and how individual episodes inform their world at large. Glee and South Park both service a wide and ever growing ensembles, throwing bones to characters originally in the background much later on. An obvious example would be how Lauren Zizes, a character first joked about in a cutaway gag in the pilot episode of Glee and reoccuring extra since became one of the major new regular additions in the second season and then relegated perhaps other more important players originally. South Park, being on for significantly longer has a history with breaking out the characters, with those sitting in the boys fourth grade classroom having the most development. They have an entire town at their disposal, and when Matt and Trey find the need to tell a story without the main families and friends, the supporting cast is strong enough to be able to set episodes against with ease.
McKinley High and South Park also share an weird type of memory-lapse wherein characters forget things week-in-week-out whilst other events remain the same. In South Park, it plays fast and loose with it. It’s always difficult to analyse an animated comedy for character development since they all like to play in open sandboxes and when they do change events up, they are only minor (American Dad, Futurama) but South Park characters, especially notable in the last few years, have retained a sense of memory and callback frequently. For a show where a character died every episode for the first few seasons, this type of continuity is baffling and strange. Or was? Still is? In season 14, the creators decided to do (another) fully-fledged three part storyarc focusing on the kids superhero identities – some previously established, most new – and the trilogy combined social situations (the BP oil spill), humour and character history (the sad self-awareness behind Kenny’s death) in a way never done before in it’s long lifespan. The “retcon” behind Kenny gave purpose to a throw-away line that appeared seven seasons prior and gave the world some balance that wouldn’t normally be found in a situation comedy. Glee, essentially, does the same thing – the characters are usually less consistent scene-to-scene, week-to-week than those in South Park, but it also offers up the same lack-of-caring that Matt and Trey do. Events and emotion is seemingly pulled out of a hat and then delivered on one episode and not the following, this is the norm. It’s a sitcom timeline. It’s The Simpsons. Except, sometimes it doesn’t hit the reset button offering some bizarre changes and “arcs” on television. Sue Sylvester, the character most lost struggle with comedy versus drama, became principle for several episodes during the show’s second season; for an episode, this type of joke works – it just does. There’s not much to it, it puts the shows antagonist into an authoritative position and the character beats almost write themselves after it. It’s a well-worn comedy trope and Glee almost accentuates why it doesn’t know what it’s own rules to it’s form are because of it. Common practice, resolved or not, would be a gag played in such a manner wouldn’t carry through. But it did. Sue remained the school principle for several more episodes and all logic went out of the window; it wasn’t funny, or inspired and didn’t even lead to any conflict. It was just a moment that carried through and might be the norm on a stricter drama, but felt out-of-place and outright bizarre on a comedy that once featured the same character dressed up and singing a song from How The Grinch Stole Christmas
The consistency on the two shows, two shows that do things no other series on television can do, is notable too. Glee and South Park can go from producing one of their most unsuccessful, unfunny, and off-mark pieces of writing to snapping up the following week with one of their wittiest, smartest hours and most heartfelt moments ever. The way their writing staffs are composed (three men on Glee, two men (plus some help) on South Park) emphasis how difficult it is for a Aaron Sorkin type domination to be had over a multi-faceted television show. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have always understood and had the time to work out what they enjoy and work their series around that – they use messages when necessary and use the (relative) freedom granted to them by Comedy Central to their advantage and form their sitcom in that manner. Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk behind Glee have an far wider cult following them and as their show walks the line, the realisation is apparent is that the form that they choose to write for is only accepted practice in comedies. Game-changing ideas can be executed and forgotten like that, but Glee’s identity problem is as simple as choosing as falling of a fence into the sandbox they want. If it wants to have a floating sense of continuity, like South Park, then it would need to be a thing that always happens. Not when a specific writer is writing a different show to his other two cohorts, as per Todd VanderWerff’s “Three Glees” theory (wherein each creator envisions and writes for their own show) but a unified sense of direction. This is ostensibly the largest difference between Glee and South Park. The superficial are obvious, but the biggest difference stems from it’s similarity. It holds no one ideal, no rule book, and because of that fact, it’s continued existence has only been to highlight this. Instead of having different themes and stories all fitting under one expensive umbrella, it opted to go cheaper and use many umbrellas – even though they keep breaking.
It’s third season will see an hired writers room which should, by all logic and reason, the show should feel more cohesive and hopefully won’t be seeing VanderWerff writing the Fourteen Glees theory come next winter. Meanwhile, South Park could very possibly be ending at the same time and although it’s has had it’s ups and downs throughout its lifetime, the writers are second-to-none for comedic stories that are both ripped-from-the-headlines and deeply rooted in character motivations.