From episode one, South Park has staked its reputation on being the show that goes there, consistently and thoroughly. There are no subjects, no public figures, no cows so sacred that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone won't lampoon them, and it seems as though they take pleasure in satirizing subjects for no other reason than that other people don't dare go near them. That was certainly the case in the 2006 episode "Cartoon Wars," based on the violent aftermath of the illustrations of Muhammad published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Despite the violence and threats that followed those cartoons, Parker and Stone were determined to show an illustration of Muhammad, but were ultimately censored by Comedy Central. In response to an Internet threat directed at the South Park duo this week, history repeated itself in the episode "201," as South Park made references to Muhammad that were censored or bleeped before air, and the original, uncensored version has been withheld from online streaming sites. It was, for Comedy Central, a brilliant decision in 2006, and equally brilliant now.
What better way to solidify South Park's image as the ultimate counterculture cartoon than to give it an oppressive force to work against? When South Park debuted, there was nothing on the air like it. Now, thanks in part to the show's success, no-holds-barred satire has become the rule rather than the exception. It's not enough today to lob insults at barely fictionalized characters as in a roman à clef; the more-is-more satire of today demands the mauling of celebrities and even religious figures, specifically and by name. Now that South Park has raised the "outrageousness" bar, they have to top themselves again and again. Their willingness to show a depiction of Muhammad would be the apex of the show's chutzpah, but by censoring the images, Comedy Central gets to appear to be the socially responsible organization while allowing Parker and Stone to maintain their bad-boy image—an image that is burnished, not dulled, by the rap on the knuckles. Parker and Stone's punishment is that they get to stand out in a wasteland of imitators. They didn't grab the brass ring, but they certainly reached.
Beyond that, Comedy Central's decision boosts the episode's thematic impact. The irony of the situation is the fact that, as was referenced in last week's episode, "200," South Park has depicted Muhammad before—in the 2001 episode "Super Best Friends." The point of "Cartoon Wars" and "200"/"201": that free speech isn't supposed to change with the times. You're supposed to be able to say what you want, when you want, about whom you want, and the moment you stop out of fear—as Comedy Central did in response to the threats—the you-know-whos win. It's a point that is driven home by the censorship, not undercut by it. Seeing the Muhammad character again wouldn't be shocking. What's shocking is to be reminded that there are still subjects we won't touch because of the irrational consequences they can have. As with all censorship, what you didn't see in last night's South Park says far more about our culture than what you did. Well played, Comedy Central.