‘South Park’s Biggest Departure Is One Of Its Best Episodes

The Big Picture

“You’re Getting Old” and “Ass Burgers” marked a departure from South Park’s usual format, delving into themes of cynicism, depression, and the fear of growing old. The emotional climax of “You’re Getting Old” was accompanied by the song “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, adding to the episode’s poignancy and leaving fans choked up. Despite concerns that the somber tone signaled the end of South Park, the show returned in the fall and continued to explore themes of depression and finding happiness in unexpected ways.

The controversial hit show South Park has sustained a very particular reputation over the decades as an adult animation that is crude in both tone and visual style, has fun with topical issues without ever really picking sides or caring about anybody’s feelings, and always narratively resetting at the end of each episode. There have been a few notable departures from this format over the years, such as the “Imaginationland” and “Pandemic” storylines, but Season 15 brought about an approach that nobody saw coming. The episode, “You’re Getting Old,” and its continuation into “Ass Burgers,” marked a solemn and all too real foray into poignancy that impressed, touched, and scared fans simultaneously while offering a glimpse into the creators’ minds.

South Park

Follows the misadventures of four irreverent grade-schoolers in the quiet, dysfunctional town of South Park, Colorado.

Release Date August 13, 1997

Main Genre Comedy

Seasons 26

Studio Comedy Central

What Is ‘South Park’s “You’re Getting Old” About?

Image via Paramount+

“You’re Getting Old” sees Stan Marsh (voiced by series co-creator Trey Parker) and his dad, Randy (also voiced by Parker), hitting respective crises. Stan turns ten and is gifted a CD of the new tween wave music which is all the rage, but when he listens to it, something isn’t right. The music sounds like sh*t —literally. Baffled by the unpleasant cacophony of techno beats and flatulence, Stan consults a doctor who tells him that it’s normal for tastes to change as one ages. The problem is, it isn’t just this newfangled tween wave that sounds bad; it’s trusty old Bob Dylan​​​​​​ too. When the doctor diagnoses him with cynicism, Stan realizes to his horror that he suddenly doesn’t like anything at all. Stan’s cynicism pervades his perception of the world, and eventually, the rest of the boys get sick of his negativity and shun him.

Meanwhile, Randy is desperate for something that “speaks to his youthful rebellious spirit,” and although tween wave sounds terrible to him too, he pushes through it, and adopts the tween wave lifestyle in order to feel young and hip again. Randy’s midlife crisis strikes his wife, Sharon (April Stewart), as just the latest in a long string of short-lived passions, and she grows sick of his childish ways, insisting that it’s all rooted in his insecurity with aging.

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This ‘South Park’ Episode Was a Change in Structure

While “You’re Getting Old” certainly delivers the laughs like any great episode of South Park, there is a distinct shake-up of structure, primarily in how both the A plot and the B plot explore themes of angst without offering a strictly comedic thread to lighten the mood. The comedy comes from the relatable and cynical observations about life and consumerism, perfectly summarized by a scene in which movie trailers in a theater advertise the typical, predictable garbage that people will pay to see, each ending with a disdainful, “whatever, f*ck you!” from the voiceover.

However, where we could usually rely on Eric Cartman (once again voiced by Parker) to bring a wacky and darkly hilarious B plot to keep things from getting too heavy, this episode is all about the Marsh men and the deep depression they are each experiencing in their respective stages of life. The fact that these themes, and indeed the consequences of the story, are carried over into the next episode, “Ass Burgers,” further demonstrates the departure from the standard approach of South Park, as does the decidedly melancholy note that the episode goes out on.

“You’re Getting Old” Has a Tragic Ending for ‘South Park’

Image via Comedy Central.

With Stan having been abandoned by his friends and Randy having had enough of his wife’s discouragement, everything hits a sadly relatable peak at the end of “You’re Getting Old.” During a final blowout argument, Randy says that he is unhappy and just trying to find some fulfillment in his life before it’s too late. He admits that, just like the tween wave and other fads that kids are expected to grow out of, his own wife now “just seems sh*tty” to him, and Sharon feels the same way about him. They have outgrown each other and no longer find the joy in their relationship that they once did. “People get older, Randy,” Sharon tells him, “they grow apart.”

In the emotional climax of “You’re Getting Old,” a song begins to play over a montage of the Marshes packing up, splitting up, and moving on to new lives. There is not another song in existence, nor one anybody could have written, that would fit this scene better than the exquisite “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. Written by Stevie Nicks while staying in the Colorado mountains during a time of personal and professional struggle, which she said in the liner notes of her album Crystal Visions “felt like a landslide in many ways,” the song encapsulates the fear and heartbreak of seeing life slip away without finding any real meaning or happiness. The lyrics are so spot on that it seems destined that this song would help tell this South Park story, from children getting older and building a life around a certainty that is suddenly ripped away, to the snow-covered hills of a Colorado mountain town. This calm, simple, and utterly beautiful song plays out the episode with such grace and emotional sincerity that it chokes you up.

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Whoever expected to cry at an episode of South Park?! It is so out of left field for the show to wrap up this way, with no final punchline or comedic reprieve to make it better, and this emotional gut-punch was a massive hit with fans. However, it also sent out ripples of concern.

Was the End Near for ‘South Park’?

Image via Universal

“You’re Getting Old” was the final episode of the spring run for Season 15 of South Park, with the rest of the season not due to air until the fall of 2011. The unusually mournful tone and reflective themes of the episode got fans wondering about what was going on behind the scenes of the show. It seemed evident that after 14 years of infamously fast-paced production, this was a message from creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker that they were exhausted, unenthused, and had grown apart from their beloved creation. They were no longer the bubbly twenty-something theater kids who created a fun, offensive, and observational show; they were middle-aged men with wives and kids, who had spent their entire professional careers doing the same thing. Was this the duo’s way of telling fans how they felt about their long-running success, that South Park “just looked sh*tty” to them now? Fans thought so, and the months between the airing of “You’re Getting Old” and the season’s continuation were agonizing.

“Ass Burgers” Offered a Continuing Saga of Misery on ‘South Park’

Image via Comedy Central

Much to the relief of fans, South Park did return in the fall of 2011, and surprisingly, it picked up right where it left off. The episode “Ass Burgers” opens with Stan waking up depressed in a new apartment, with everything still looking, sounding, and tasting bad. The first words we hear from him are an angry outburst in class, which gets him sent to see school counselor Mr. Mackey (voiced by, you guessed it, Trey Parker). In a scene that anyone who has experienced depression can relate to, Mackey tells Stan that his attitude is bringing everyone else down and that he should snap out of his funk. Shockingly, this doesn’t do the trick, and Stan tearfully asks how he can possibly go on living when nothing makes him happy anymore.

This episode does relax a little back into a more playful South Park structure, with Stan being recruited into a Matrix-style organization that sees the world for what it really is and regains long-lost optimism through binge-drinking. The ever-reliable Eric Cartman meanwhile sets up a successful burger joint, causing fast food giants to seek out his disgusting secret recipe. Through all the chaos, Stan finally reaches the acceptance stage of grief and realizes that although things won’t return to the way they were, this new phase of life will bring with it new opportunities and relationships worth getting excited about. Just as the poor kid comes to this very mature conclusion, Randy rolls up and announces his reconciliation with Sharon and that everything will, in fact, go back to the way it was.

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‘South Park’s “You’re Getting Old” Gives an Honest Look at Depression

Image via Comedy Central

“Landslide” plays again as the Marsh status quo is restored, but Stan’s hard-earned optimism is sadly ripped away once again. The final scene shows that while Stan may no longer see everything in an awful light, he is still depressed and now has a drinking habit to help him achieve some sense of normalcy. It’s another very salient point that explores the rose-tinted view of nostalgia, and whether “the way things were” is really all that desirable after all. Even if the circumstances of happiness are restored, Stan has changed as a person in the meantime, so what constitutes happiness now looks completely different. As many people find out the hard way, true happiness may not really exist at all, and the best we can do is find ways to cope with that possibility. Sadly, as we can see in this underrated episode of South Park, this sometimes ends up being in alcohol, drugs, or other forms of temporary escapism that ultimately do more harm than good.

Just as Stone and Parker have never shied away from offending people with their comedy, in these South Park episodes, they don’t shy away from exploring the despair that life often involves. For these two episodes, they didn’t pull out a last-minute joke to cushion the blow but ended things on a decidedly dour note. They showed that a new week and new episode could not reset Stan’s feelings of hopelessness, and it takes balls in comedy to commit to an emotional bit and let it run its course. Although the fears of “You’re Getting Old” signaling the end of South Park turned out to be unfounded, the episode certainly functioned as a window into the psyches of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. On the episode’s DVD commentary, they speak of wanting to create an episode that reflected who they were as men in their early forties, and how their outlooks and attitudes had changed with age. They created an episode that would cause a storm and stand out in fan memory as one of the most touching and unusual moments in the show’s run, as well as the time that South Park proved that it did have a heart after all.

South Park is available to stream on Max in the U.S.

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