It's hard to believe that when I first saw South Park as a high schooler in 1997 that it would become the television institution it is today. The show just started its 18th season by ripping the NFL and especially the Washington Redskins a new one. In honor of 18 years of kicking ass and taking names, here's an attempt to pick the top 18 episodes. While the quality of the show is known for being highly uneven from episode to episode (especially in the years since creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone started making all the episodes a week before their air date to best capitalize on current events), I was surprised how many I wanted to reference here. I didn't rank them from 18 to 1 - instead, they're listed in chronological order. Check out the Honorable Mentions for the ones that were just shy of getting a spot.
In this early classic, Stan gets a lesson in tolerance when he finds out his dog, Sparky, is gay. His initial revulsion drives the dog into the welcoming arms of Big Gay Al and his Big Gay Animal Sanctuary. Once Stan finds him, he learns about the history of gay rights in a hilarious Disneyworld-esque boat ride ("Uh-oh! Here come the oppressors! Christians, Nazis and Republicans! Phew, that was close!") Al is a walking gay stereotype ("I'm thuper, thanks for athking!") but he has such a sweet, gentle personality that the audience can't help but love him. The episode was fairly progressive for 1990s TV and even won a GLAAD award. Seeing it at a time when my morals were still being formed probably had an important role in shaping my attitudes about gay rights. This episode also demonstrated just how little regard Matt and Trey had for celebrities. George Clooney was an early fan of the show and eager for a guest spot, so he was given the chance to bark a few times as the voice of Sparky.
My memory of this episode, a parody of mascot-driven Christmas specials, is especially vivid. I can still recall seeing for the first time the scene where Mr. Hankey attacks Cartman, leaving a brown smear on his cheek. Mr. Garrison, aghast, shouts "Oh my Lord Kyle, did you just throw DOO-DOO at Eric?!" I was hit with overwhelming fits of laughter that continued through the subsequent commercial break. Just before that moment, Cartman had performed the classic "Kyle's Mom is a Bitch" song that would later wind up in the movie (which is better than all these episodes, if you haven't watched it, stop reading this and get that done!). While Mr. Hankey tried to comfort Kyle's feelings of exclusion as a Jew during the Christmas season, Mr. Garrison deals with increasingly ridiculous restrictions to the school's Christmas pageant imposed by political correctness. ("We can't use Christmas lights because they offend people with epilepsy.") As a result, the pageant turns into pretentious new-age nonsense with a Philip Glass score in a hysterical scene. A fantastic episode that foreshadowed what the show would be able to accomplish in the coming years.
The supporting cast of South Park features all sorts of colorful characters, including Jesus Christ himself. The Son of God walks around town with a permanent halo over his head and hosts a local public access show. In this episode, Jesus gets taken in by a sleazy producer who turns his harmless program into a trashy talk show that winds up featuring the boys after they get into a spat with local gun nut Jimbo over the titular frog. Urged on by the show's new producer, the boys indulge in a rapid-fire delivery of the worst Jerry Springer cliches that escalates to the point where Cartman hits Kenny in the head with a chair for no discernible reason. It's not all that far removed from the shows that are being parodied, but it's too much for Jesus, who shouts "Shut the fuck up! Jesus Christ, what the hell is wrong with you people?!" It's not the deepest episode, but it's damn funny and introduced another fun gag at the very ending - the producer finds herself in hell, where Satan and Saddam Hussein are a couple.
After the first two seasons, the show struggled for a while, producing episodes that ranged from unmemorable to just plain awful (perhaps we can do a worst episode list some other time). They found some inspiration in changing up the show's formulas. Since the first episode, Kenny's primary character trait was that he would constantly die under bizarre circumstances, usually followed by the exchange - "Oh my God, they killed Kenny! You bastards!" Five seasons in, that was starting to get old and so they decided to kill the poor kid off "for real." This episode took a gag viewers were sick of and played it completely straight as Kenny tragically died and his friends struggled with grief. The story also addressed the issue of stem cell research, leading to a legendary scene of Cartman leading Congress in a sing-along of Asia's "Heat of the Moment." It's one of the best moments in South Park history, ridiculous and moving at the same time. As for Kenny, he was dead for quite a few episodes but eventually rejoined the gang.
The boys wait for a highly anticipated trailer to play during an episode of "Russell Crowe: Fightin' Round the World." In the meantime, the audience is treated to perhaps the funniest celebrity parody in the show's history. Mining comedic gold from Russell Crowe's infamous temper, "Fightin' Round the World" features him and his pet tugboat exploring the world in the manner of the late Steve Irwin ("There's a lot of black people and Puerto Ricans around here, and they don't take kindly to Whitey!"). This episode is a riot and my friends and I still do impersonations from it ("What are you lookin' at, you VAGINA?!"). Even Crowe himself admitted it was funny. As for that trailer? It winds up just being a lot of text flying at the screen while ominous music played in the background, a spot-on parody of empty "teasers."
The show's talent for satirizing current events hit a new high around the time this episode aired. Still looking for their dead friend Kenny, the boys theorize if they can build a ladder high enough to reach Heaven, they'll find him. This leads to a brilliant parody of post 9/11 hysteria and fearmongering, with government officials telling the public that Heaven could be hoarding weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, country singer Alan Jackson brings an audience to tears with a song with the following lyrics - "9/11, oh 9/11, 9/11, oh 9/11," which wasn't too far from the emotionally manipulative bullshit he was peddling at the time. This episode was a wonderful catharsis at a time when many of us were getting sick of hearing patriotic glurge all the time...especially when it was about to get us into war with a completely unrelated nation. It also has one of my favorite South Park one-liners of all time, courtesy of Cartman: "Maybe we're not in heaven because one of us is a J-O-O?"
After buying some weapons at a flea market, the boys imagine themselves as anime warriors. One of the most visually exciting episodes, their imagined adventures are brought to vivid life with full anime-style sequences. The creators replicate the conventions of anime with exacting detail and even throw "Let's Fighting Love," a ridiculous Japanese song with mangled English phrases. It's all fun and games until Butters gets a shuriken in the eye - a sobering sequence that will feel familiar to any viewer with childhood memories of those moments where you knew you went too far and were going to get in big trouble. Going to absurd lengths to avoid the wrath of their parents, the boys hatch a scheme that ends in a parody of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl breast incident. It was an unexpected bit of commentary, but it works. "We didn't even get in trouble," they say after a hyperbolic town meeting. "I guess grown-ups don't care about violence if there's sex stuff going on!"
Your typical South Park episode has an "A" and "B" plotline. The "A" plot is the focus of the episode, while the "B" plot more or less happens in the background. A lot of episodes run into a problem with the A plot being great and the B plot being fairly weak (such as the "Passion of the Jew" episode) but in "The Losing Edge," both are firing on all cylinders. The A plot begins when the boys find out, to their dismay, that doing well in a regular season of Little League baseball means they have to play more sports in the post-season, not less. It's a welcome takedown of the assumption that sports is right for every kid as the script goes through a series of sports-movie cliches, flipped on their heads as the team tries its best to lose. Meanwhile, Randy Marsh finds himself in a "Rocky" situation as he tries to be the best of the best when it comes to getting drunk at games and starting fights with other parents ("What, isn't this America? I'm sorry, I thought this was America!") The storylines dovetail beautifully in this episode's perfect ending, another classic moment that's both funny and uplifting.
Nine years in, I didn't think South Park could shock me anymore. This episode proved me wrong. This sordid tale features late cast-addition Jimmy, a quick-witted kid with crutches and a stutter, trying to figure out how to control his spontaneous boners before he performs a stand-up comedy routine during a talent show. When he finds more about his...problem, things go haywire. The storyline plays to one of the strengths of the show's characterizations - while the kids talk like adults most of the time, they are still young and innocent in some ways and vulnerable to confusion about adult issues. My college roommates and I sat in front of the TV in stunned shock when Jimmy took one of his classmates to a fancy restaurant before asking her if he could "put my penis into your vagina." It only got more unhinged from there, spinning a crazy yarn of hookers, angry pimps and car chases.
This episode caused all sorts of commotion...but not immediately. The scathing takedown of Scientology aired originally without much of a fuss. It was when it was scheduled to rerun (someday we'll have to explain to our kids what "reruns" were) that the trouble started. Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef and a Scientologist himself, abruptly quit the show despite not having any problem when it first aired. Conspiracy theories were all over the place, in part because Scientology's most high-profile advocate, Tom Cruise, gets the South Park treatment in this episode as well. The cult claims that Stan is the reincarnation of founder L. Ron Hubbard, which gets the attention of Cruise and other celebrity Scientologists. When Stan tells Cruise, that he's "okay, not as good as the guy who played Napoleon Dynamite," the distraught actor locks himself in the closet. When his friends plea with him to "come out of the closet," the joke is not lost on anyone. However, the most incisive moment of the episode isn't even a joke - the bonkers Scientology creation myth is dramatized with a subtitle "This is what Scientologists actually believe" displayed as the audience learns about Xenu and the thetans. If Scientologists didn't abuse the legal system to intimidate people who call them out on their bullshit, I might even feel bad for them after the beatdown they got here. But they do, so I don't.
Multi-part stories bring out the best in South Park and this storyline in particular was a major turning point. At first, it only seems like a parody of Family Guy and a very funny one at that, with fake clips that the random nonsense that passes for plot on that show. The reveal that Family Guy episodes are written by manatees who push random plot ideas through a water tank is more plausible than it ought to be. However, there is plenty more going on in "Cartoon Wars." In a scenario inspired by the violence in the Middle East over Danish cartoonists drawing the prophet Mohammed (taboo according to Islam doctrine), a controversy erupts in the South Park universe when it's revealed that Family Guy plans to show Mohammed in an upcoming episode and Cartman intends to manipulate the controversy to get the show off the air. At the end of Part I, following an epic tricycle chase between Cartman and Kyle, the narration revealed that Mohammed would be shown the following week, unless Comedy Central "pussed out." This went beyond incisive satire, this felt dangerous.
In the end, Comedy Central "pussed out" and refused to show the image of Mohammed on their network. In return, Trey and Matt punished the network for its hypocrisy by ending Part II with a scene of Jesus and President Bush crapping on the American Flag. Some commentators were offended, but that was the point. The show was allowed to offend those people but NOT the militant Muslims. If you think about it, it's pretty obnoxious that one group of hotheads thinks they can order not just fellow Muslims, but the entire goddamn world, not to draw something. For Matt and Trey, who wouldn't have a career without free expression, it's clearly personal. They tried this again in another two parter ("200" and "201") a few years later, but after a death threat from an extremist group, Comedy Central sliced "201" to ribbons. The irony of all this is that South Park had already shown Mohammed in an episode called "Super Best Friends" a few years earlier. Whoops!
And now for a group absolutely nobody cares about offending: atheists! In another spectacular two-part episode, Cartman simply can't bear to wait three weeks until the Nintendo Wii is released. So he does what anyone would do, he freezes himself in hopes of passing the time by instantly. Instead, he wakes up over 500 years into the future and is desperate to find a Wii, which is now ancient history. There are a lot of awesome details in this episode - the first scene in Part II is a glorious parody of this embarrassing jargon-filled exposition that plagues a lot of science-fiction and fantasy writing. As for atheism, that's where it gets really interesting. In the future, religion has been purged from Earth entirely, thanks to the actions of famous atheist/douchebag Richard Dawkins in the present. Religion is often blamed for the world's wars, so is a post-religion world now free of conflict? Nope, the atheists are at war with each other over what name to use for the society of atheists (They're also at war with highly evolved otters, but that's just for laughs). It's smart stuff and a funny way to criticize lazy atheist rhetoric - war is not a problem with any religion, it's a problem within humanity.
It's such a good idea you wonder why it hadn't been done earlier. This clever, funny and delightful episode takes Easter and gives it the full Da Vinci Code treatment, including secret societies of men in rabbit ears, clues in Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper painting and a conspiracy deep in the bowels of Vatican City. It's incredibly silly, but the tone of Da Vinci Code is maintained and the result is just as gripping in spite of itself. The real enemy turns out not to be the Pope, but Catholic League President Bill Donohue, one of those professional trolls who goes on TV to whine about the poor, oppressed Catholic Church every time someone mentions the recurring problem they have with child molestation. The only one who can stop him is Jesus, who can only use his superpowers when he's dead, putting Kyle in an awkward situation ("Eric Cartman can never know about this."). The climax of the episode, when Jesus slices that weasel Donohue in half with a giant shuriken in slow motion, is sublime.
Excluding the movie, these Emmy-winning three episodes are South Park's finest achievement. Cartman and Kyle make a wager about whether or not leprechauns exist, with Kyle being obliged to suck Cartman's balls if he's wrong. Well, sure enough, they take a walk in the woods and catch a real-life leprechaun. But before Cartman can claim his prize, the rest of the boys are whisked off to Imaginationland, an alternate universe populated by all the characters humanity has ever dreamed up. The fun stops when terrorists attack the imaginary realm and blow open a stone wall that separated the heroic characters from the villains, setting the stage for a major clash. Meanwhile, all Cartman is concerned with is trying to get Kyle to suck his balls ("You think this is about pleasure? It's about humiliation!"). There's a lot going on, all of it perfectly paced and balanced, with a great central metaphor. "Terrorists attacking our imagination" might as well be the slogan of the last decade.
The trilogy is just a full-on blast of fun. Pause the screen at any point in the Imaginationland scenes and you're bound to find more familiar characters lurking in the background. The concluding battle features all sorts of epic matchups, whether it's Morpheus vs. Freddy Krueger or Jesus vs. the Xenomorph Alien. There are so many fantastic moments and I've just got to list a few - the military interviewing Hollywood directors to try and figure out what's going on, a shot-for-shot recreation of a famous moment in Saving Private Ryan where Ronald McDonald picks up his own arm while the camera shakes, Cartman's nightmare about his dry balls, a series of characters (such as Luke Skywalker, Superman and Captain Crunch) taking turns giving Kyle a pep talk, Aslan's freakout when chosen warrior Butters can't figure out his new powers ("Imagine Santa Claus RIGHT NOW!"). This is strong enough material to have been a second theatrical film and indeed, there is a DVD release of the trilogy edited together.
When I saw that Britney Spears would appear in the latest South Park episode, I expected her to get the same severe roasting that dozens of celebrities had gotten before her. I was pleasantly surprised that Trey and Matt portrayed Britney in a sympathetic light while roasting targets far more worthy of derision - the noxious tabloid culture that turns young (usually female) performers into queens of the world only to violently bring them down with their snooping and nitpicking. The episode starts off with a grisly twist as Britney Spears attempts suicide but only manages to blow the top half of her head off and somehow survive. The boys take pity on her as she tries to resume her career, but things go farther downhill after a performance where critics obsess about her weight (apparently not noticing that half her head is missing). The struggle to keep her out of the clutches of the paparazzi becomes more desperate and the story turns into an homage to "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson's classic short story about human sacrifice. The comparison is scarily apt and while this isn't the funniest episode, the tragic denouement is very powerful.
This episode is an ambitious look at the Great Recession that turned out to be surprisingly resonant. In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, the South Park community predictably overreacts, forcing everyone to dress in rags and act like it's the Dark Ages. Stan is left to try and return his father's huge margarita-mixing machine, a goofy metaphor for the risky mortgage sales that contributed to the recession. Back in town, Kyle begins to rebel against the prevailing attitudes and the story turns into an effective retelling of the life of Jesus. There are a lot of great moments in this episode, from Kyle's sermon on the mount about the inherent emptiness of credit cards, a Last Supper in which Cartman acts a little too appalled at the suggestion that someone might betray this new Messiah ("Hey, if anyone's thinking of betraying Kyle, that is NOT COOL! You're being a DICK!") and the moving final sacrifice he makes to restore the town's confidence. It sounds surprising to hear that a show starring characters made of construction paper can offer a thoughtful commentary on the intangible nature of the economy and how society treats it as a religion, but there it is.
A previous one-off episode laid the foundation for this arc, introducing Kenny's alter-ego Mysterion (who can talk!) and Cartman as "The Coon" (Raccoon, of course. Were you thinking of something else?) This three-parter upgraded the premise to a full superhero team and chronicles the rivalries and struggles for power that come up with a big group of kids. Things take a turn for the cosmic when everyone's least favorite oil company BP accidentally releases H.P. Lovecraft's dark lord Cthulhu while drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. An unlikely friendship between Cartman and the evil deity could mean the end of the world, or at the very least, bad news for The Burning Man festival and Justin Bieber. As with the "Imaginationland" trilogy, the large scale of the story makes room for numerous classic moments - Cartman recreating a famous scene from A Clockwork Orange and beating up his friends in slow-motion, the fantastic sequences telling the story with comic-book illustrations, a Miyazaki-esque musical number featuring Cthulhu and the final revelations involving a superhero named "Mintberry Crunch."
However, what was more interesting to longtime South Park fans was the surprising amount of character development for Kenny, who had been with us since the very first episode. It turns out Kenny does have a superpower - immortality. Every time he dies, he reappears in his family home, with the memory of his death wiped from those who witness it. The fact that the writers decided to explain a ridiculous gag that has been consistent for over a decade is both funny and fascinating. I don't think I'm alone among the fanbase in wishing that there was more tight continuity between South Park episodes, but I don't think the creators will ever fully embrace that.
The last featured episode is from last season - an awesome blend of parody, scathing social commentary and jokes about "wieners," is proof that South Park can still bring it every so often. The inspired premise is a detailed parody of Game of Thrones with the overblown rivalry between the Xbox One and Playstation 4 consoles functioning as the warring houses of Westeros. In keeping with the show, everyone walks around in medieval outfits, alliances are made and broken, grave matters are discussed in beautiful gardens, and everything comes to a shocking climax at the Red Robin Wedding. Meanwhile, Stan's father becomes a mall security guard and the show turns him and his colleagues into the Night's Watch, guarding the mall against an incoming horde of insane shoppers. In true Game of Thrones fashion, it's a long wait until the big moment, but it's worth it. Real footage from last year's Black Friday mayhem is incorporated into the finale, which says more about this nauseating American tradition than any monologue could. In a devastatingly incisive scene, the boys wander the mall through pools of blood that run up to their knees while gentle piano music (meant to invoke A Charlie Brown Christmas) plays in the background. It's a stunning moment that shows the South Park well isn't dry just yet. And you gotta love the parting shot at just how little these $500 game consoles change with each iteration ("Wow, the graphics are like 10 percent better."). Keep giving them hell, guys.
And now for the Honorable Mentions!
Clubhouses (Season 2)
Chef-Aid (Season 2)
It Hits the Fan (Season 5)
Osama bin Laden has Farty Pants (Season 5)
The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers (Season 6)
My Future Self and Me (Season 6)
Quest For Ratings (Season 8)
About Last Night (Season 12)
Elementary School Musical (Season 12)
The Ring (Season 13)
Butters Bottom Bitch (Season 13)
You Have 0 Friends (Season 14)
Screw you guys...I'm going home!