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Television

Goin’ Down to South Park: Re-examining every episode

INTRODUCTION

My first real recollection of South Park was from TIME magazine. When I was much younger, I’d go downstairs into my dad’s den, grab a stack of TIME magazines, and go to the pop culture section. As a young kiddo much too young to watch most things, reading the culture section kept me up with films, reviews, and interviews, which gave me a portal into a world I desperately wanted to immerse myself in. 

Nowadays, TIME isn’t as much fun. Not that their quality has subsided, but now I watch all the movies they talk about, or at the very least, already know about the pop culture, so it’s not quite so special reading reviews and interviews. Ignorance is bliss I suppose. 

Anywho, the reason I bring up TIME is because of The Book of Mormon. If you’re reading this, you probably already know what it is — a legit Broadway musical put on by the creators of South Park (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) about Mormon missionaries. This warranted an article/interview by TIME, and an accompanying picture was burned into my mind. 

It wasn’t anything that special. It was just a still of the boys from South Park in a house. Probably Kyle’s. I think Timmy was there. That was it. Nothing crazy. But it stuck with me. I vaguely remembering thinking at the time: that looks familiar. However, I don’t think I had ever sat down and seen any South Park when I first saw that article. Here was a cartoon that was supposedly so raunchy it warranted mentioning.

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A few years later I got into Family Guy. It was scandalous stuff for me. I must have been about 11 or 12. 13? I hate to burst your party bubble, but I’m not crazy about Family Guy. It’s OK…sometimes…but I never found the animation appealing or compelled enough to binge episodes. Nowadays I find the scattershot nature of the “lol so random” humor exhausting and I much prefer earlier episodes with a driving point/plot.

I also think my lack of fandom comes from a lack of strong characterization. I mean, the cast can be defined, but other than Stewie, they aren’t given a lot to do. We never get a deeper look into their profiles or actually care for them. At least, I don’t.

But I mention my Family Guy time because it teed me up for South Park. On one fateful day, I found an episode of South Park on. My first episode couldn’t have been better. I was blessed to see “Good Times With Weapons” S8E1 as my first entrance into the wild minds of Parker and Stone. It was incredible. I couldn’t believe it. In terms of raunchy humor, South Park blew Family Guy out of the water. And I loved the animation. Yes, it’s supposed to look low-budget to some degree, but I adored the world and atmosphere the style built. 

And I love atmosphere in TV. When I watch a show, I want to feel like I’m stepping into another world. And my favorite shows create a consistent environment and tone that you can sink into. For Breaking Bad, it’s the sun-blasted New Mexico landscape, experimental camera-angles, and desolate blocking. But South Park’s animation style alone immersed me. 

The funny thing is, “Good Times With Weapons” experiments. It’s not a “standard” episode. The joke is that the kids imagine and view themselves as anime super-fighters. So to fully capitalize on that, Parker and Stone imitate the hyper-active anime style, complete with nonsensical theme songs and bad dubbing. I wouldn’t be surprised if my young brain thought this was a regular event in the show. 

However, here’s what really drove me to see more episodes and become a convert — the social commentary. Even at 13 or 14 or however old I was, I picked up on the point of the episode. In the climax, Cartman, to cover up the fact that sweet lil’ Butters has a ninja star imbedded in his eye, strips naked and tries to sneak past his parents believing he has invisibility powers.

Then — and I had no idea this would happen — the parents don’t give a damn about Butter’s dismemberment. Their rage is focused on Cartman waltzing past them in his birthday suit. Wait — what?!? That brilliant subversion, that commentary on the lines of parental acceptance, justified the previous 20 minutes of absurdity. Here’s a foul-mouthed, snarky, balls-to-the-walls, no-holds-barred, intentionally offensive show that ended with a well-observed message. 

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Pardon my French, but aren’t shows with messages kid’s stuff?

But not South Park. TV shows, especially comedies, often have subplots, but SP is layered and even dense in its ability to accomplice so much in 22 minutes, something I was overjoyed to discover. Little did I know, that formula was in practically every episode, which is something I soon found out as I watched episode after episode. 

So why this series? Why am I suddenly embarking on a mission to view all episodes over again and give commentary on them? Well, I was revisiting old favorites, and had so many thoughts beyond just enjoying the humor, I had to share them. I love in-depth, critical analysis of film and shows, and I thought South Park should have one for its earlier seasons.

My hope is to not just point out how funny things are, but to dive into the commentary, messages, and filmmaking that Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and their incredibly talented team have delivered for over 20 years on Comedy Central. What’s awesome about South Park is that it’s inherently tied to the years and pop-culture of its release dates, so the discussion of whether something has aged well or not is going to come up time and time again.

I’m a late bloomer to the show, only watching “hardcore” since S15, so for some of the earlier seasons, I won’t have lived through cultural events the show explores. I hope that will be a benefit, seeing as how I’ll have more of an outsider’s perspective. This could end up being more of a historical recounting than anything. 

I look forward to seeing how certain talking points will age. I suspect many issues will still be relevant. Some episodes will be prophetic. Some will require more nuance in discussion due to changing circumstances. Take for instance, “Christian Rock Hard” from S7E9 where Kyle, Stan, and Kenny’s subplot involves being busted for the illegal downloading of music.

This results in a strike where other musicians band together to protest illegal downloads, not because of artistic integrity, but because they want more money. Certainly this is still an amusing commentary on celebrity pop stars, but in the age of Spotify, we’re learning that artists are getting scammed out of money they deserve. Reality is always more complicated than jokes allow for.

Let’s be honest: there’s going to be stuff that hasn’t aged so well, even as satire. So prepare for that. Slap a trigger warning all over this project. South Park also has a reputation for being frustratingly centrist: lambasting all sides instead of sticking up for any one idea, morality be damned. And we’ll get into that too. 

I hope this series serves as a stimulating guide that’ll be more than just reviews or trivia. South Park has gone through a lot of changes in these recent seasons for better and worse, but no matter what the critical or audience consensus is, it’s a remarkable show that’ll never stop being at the center of the zeitgeist and endlessly worth talking about. 

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