It’s funny how time can shift our perceptions. Long, long ago, way back in 1997, South Park was a counter-cultural and revolutionary TV show. It was an ode to all things sexual and scatological that looked like it had been animated in the creators’ garden shed. Best noted for the ire it drew from parents groups and the weekly deaths of perma-hoodied fourth-grader Kenny, it bore all the markings of a flash-in-the-pan success as tie-in merchandise quickly shifted by the millions and a movie was fast-tracked to the multiplexes almost immediately.
Two decades later, and far from having been consigned to television history, South Park is an establishment icon; still brave and boundary-pushing, but revered by the majority, not feared, as much a part of the contemporary TV landscape as predecessor-in-anarchic-spirit The Simpsons. It’s had a phenomenal run, traversing political satire, social commentary, laugh-out-loud humor and even character development deftly and with great ease. Its short production schedule and Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s continued willingness to reflect contemporary real-world events through the South Park lens ensure it shows no sign of flagging just yet. Here are 20 geeky highlights from the series…
This is one of the first parody episodes and also stars Sidney Poitier and Robert Smith, along with those little Japanese ladies who live in a shell from the Godzilla movies.
This episode revolves around Barbra Streisand trying to find “The Diamond of Pantios” which has recently been dug up in a South Park archaeological dig. After exploring the site, the kids pick up the final piece and are subsequently kidnapped by the evil Barbra.
When she completes the diamond, she turns into a evil “mech-streisand/Godzilla” and tries to destroy South Park. Only the combined power of giant monster versions of Leonard Maltin, Sidney Poitier and The Cure’s Robert Smith are able to defeat her. Insane, fun and just plain silly, the episode is a great ode to Toho films.
Major Boobage (S12)
A new drug craze has taken hold of South Park: getting high on male cat urine, a phenomenon dubbed “cheesing” by Fox News (“it’s fon to due!”). Surprisingly, the sight of Kenny receiving a shot of kitty widdle to the face isn’t the most memorable sequence here: it’s the wild and wacky hallucinations that linger in the mind, breast-obsessed homages to 1981 film Heavy Metal. The tone of the film—a cross between the animated Lord of the Rings, Thundercats, Frank Frazetta, Iron Maiden and pornography—is perfectly recaptured. In the real world, meanwhile, a city-wide ban on cats is being enacted and implemented with an eerie resemblance to Hitler and the Holocaust.
Simpsons Already Did It (S6)
Butters is in “Professor Chaos” alter-ego mode here, but his continual attempts to cause trouble throughout South Park – from blocking out the sun, to beheading the town statue – all seem to be sourced from The Simpsons. His escalating frustration at his inability to come with an original idea is a source of great comedy. Elsewhere, Cartman is disappointed with his “Sea People,” a razor-sharp parody of the sea monkey phenomenon of the era – “seaman” puns swiftly beckon.
The resolution, which ties both stories together neatly, is a gem, and the acceptance that “The Simpsons have done everything already. Who cares?” feels even more relevant, three-hundred more episodes of that show down the line. The irony, of course, is that South Park has nearly as many episodes in the bank now as The Simpsons did back when this episode aired in 2000…
Casa Bonita (S7)
Kyle’s celebrating his birthday at Casa Bonita, Colorado’s spin on a “Mexican Disneyland”-style restaurant (amazingly, not an invention of the show—it really exists!) There’s a spanner in the works, though: unhappy with the mockery he’s received from him over the years, Kyle hasn’t invited Cartman. Instead, Butters has taken his place. Desperate to visit Casa Bonita, Cartman plots to make Butters disappear, and tricks him into hiding in a nuclear fallout shelter… a town-wide search for the missing boy threatens to put the kibosh on the meal altogether.
A relatively simple episode, the humor is consistent and true to the characters, a classic showcase of the carefree nefariousness that lurks just under Cartman’s surface.
Jimmy Valmer creates the funniest joke in world history: Cartman wants credit for it, and Kanye West doesn’t get it. From such staggeringly simply setups comes “Fishsticks,” predicated entirely on “sticks” sounding a little bit like “dicks”. (“”Do you like fishsticks?” “Yeah.” “You like to put fishsticks in your mouth?” “Yeah.” “What are you, a gay fish?”) It’s a great joy seeing Cartman gradually exaggerating his role in the creation of the joke, and there’s a funny take on Carlos Mencia, too, riffing on his real-world joke-stealing allegations.
The episode is perhaps best-noted for prompting a response from Kanye West, who penned a blog post expressing his simultaneous amusement and hurt feelings. The mind boggles as to how different the show would be if they’d opted for the British terminology, “fish fingers”…
Another Cartman-Butters extravaganza that escalates to greater and greater comedic heights. Cartman dresses up in a cardboard box as robot AWESOM-O 4000, in a bid to learn Butters’ secrets. Surprisingly, however, Butters confides in his newfound robot friend that he is harbouring one of Cartman’s secrets—video footage of him dressing up as Britney Spears—and plans to share it with the world next time he is mocked by him.
Cartman remains committed to the robot costume, at the expense of his hunger and health, and joins Butters on a trip to LA. Word spreads about the robot, who Hollywood studios enlist to generate movie ideas (800 of which involve Adam Sandler), and the military hope to adapt into a weapon. Alas, Cartman is in no position to reveal the truth, lest that embarrassing video be spread around school.
Sponsored Content (S19)
South Park took to season-long serialization for the first time in season 19, with strong results. Playing with form this far into a show’s run is to be applauded, and the recurring theme of political correctness is one tailor-made for the show’s take-no-prisoners satirical bent. The strongest of the batch was “Sponsored Content,” in which school newspaper editor Jimmy is thrown into conflict with newly-introduced PC Principal over the contents of an op-ed.
Cue not just a skewering of PC culture, but also a fine opportunity to satirise clickbait, BuzzFeed, online advertising and paid content; the show nails the web content zeitgeist. Points also for the sci-fi feel to some of the episode’s colder sequences – very redolent of Blade Runner.
Black Friday/A Song of Ice and Fire/Titties and Dragons (S17)
Given its near-immediate cementation as a cultural phenomenon, South Park taking on Game Of Thrones was inevitable. This classic three-parter is no box-ticking exercise, though; it’s probably the finest parody of that high fantasy series to date, an hour-long spin on consumer demand, game console loyalty, and obsessive fandoms. The town splits into factions over whether to purchase an Xbox One or a Playstation 4 at an upcoming Black Friday sales event, and new mall security guard Randy finds himself thrust into a Bacchanalian display of anticipatory violence.
There’s also room for comic spins on George R.R. Martin and Bill Gates, and Thrones fans will absolutely relish the numerous references to their show throughout the hour (“Red Robin Wedding”, anyone?).
There is nothing more terrifying than an evil fish, and with Aunt Flo visiting, Stan’s fears are turned up to 11 as her innocent-looking goldfish is brought along for the journey. His alarm proves to be justified, as the bodycount racks up in the presence of the fish. Upon investigation, the boys discover that the fish is from a pet-shop that happens to be built on a Native American burial ground. The owner directs them to a portal to an evil mirror dimension, from where the fish came; evil, goateed versions of Stan, Kenny and Kyle come across to join him. All that can stop them is Cartman and his ‘evil twin’… who’s actually quite a nice fellow.
A fine send-up of the evil twin trope, the episode originally aired in Spookyvision, which saw none other than Barbra Streisand’s head superimposed in each of the four corners of the screen.
Good Times With Weapons (S8)
An episode heavily influenced by Japanese animation, “Good Times With Weapons” is one of the best-remembered episodes in the South Park canon for good reason. At the county fair, the boys buy martial arts weapons, and the episode transitions into an anime-style format in Cinemascope ratio. Each boy acquires a unique superpower, and we witness the gang’s attempts to take down the evil alter ego of Butters, General Chaos. One of Kenny’s ninja stars gets stuck in Butters’ eye, though, the boys must do the logical thing: dress Butters up as a dog and take him to the vet to get him treatment.
Anime, manga and gaming references are only the tip of the iceberg here: there’s also some fantastic commentary on sex and violence in the media.
Go God Go/Go God Go XII (S10)
The unlikely pairing of Richard Dawkins and Ms. Garrison makes for some fine comedy. Brought in to cover science class after Ms. Garrison states that man is “the retarded offspring of five monkeys who had butt-sex with a fish-squirrel,” Dawkins soon finds solace in the companionship of Ms. Garrison, and pointed political commentary on creationism in schools gives way to a hilarious romantic subplot. Elsewhere, Cartman’s wait for the Wii feels never-ending. He resolves to get Butters to help him cryogenically freeze for three weeks, until the Wii is launched. However, things don’t go to plan and he’s hurtled, Buck Rogers-style, five hundred years into the future where mankind is at war with itself about what to call its non-religion. The threat of a growing sea otter army is also on the horizon. Funny and cutting satire.
You Have 0 Friends (S14)
South Park really goes to town on social media in this instant-classic entry. Peer-pressured into Facebook, Stan becomes frustrated with the number of friend requests he receives and the time-suck the site becomes; his attempts to delete his account leading him to be literally sucked into a real-world “Facebook.” Meanwhile, Kyle’s devastated that his friend count is dropping, after befriending uncool third-grader Kip. Naturally, the two stories dovetail bizarrely, and the boys must work together to take down Stan’s now-sentient Facebook page.
Pop-culture references abound in this entry: Stan’s experience recalls Tron, and alongside Facebook itself, there are also extended references to web fascinations ChatRoulette and FarmVille (remember when that was the internet thing? Feels like a lifetime ago..)
A Nightmare on Facetime (S16)
A long-dead Blockbuster as a haunted house of horrors is the fine jumping-off for this semi-Shining parody. Randy’s bought the out-of-town video store for $10,000; unfamiliar with streaming video and Redbox DVD rental machines, he believes it to be a sound investment. Forced to work there with his dad on Halloween, Stan must join the gang trick-or-treating via FaceTime. Unfortunately, the boys get entangled with a violent gang—the Redbox Killers—and their Avengers costumes are no match for a group of hardened criminals. As they torture Stan via FaceTime, attempting to track down the remainder of the gang, Randy is undergoing a Jack Torrance-esque breakdown, concerned that his wife and son are sabotaging his business.
The Super Best Friends (S5)
Remembered best as the “David Blaine episode,” in which Matt and Trey demonstrate a comical disdain for the po-faced magician. But the real victim of the vicious satire here is organized religion, blind faith in our leaders, and cult-like worship. The boys of South Park get hooked on the “magic” Blaine, but Stan soon finds out that the appeal of the maestro runs far darker and deeper than he’d anticipated. With Cartman among the millions entirely committed to Blaine’s cult—Blainetology—and David having launched a mass suicide pact, Stan summons Jesus and his “Super Best Friends” team of kind-minded deities to defeat the evil power of Blaine. A sharp blend of religious satire and references to the likes of Justice League and Power Rangers – what’s not to like?
Make Love, Not Warcraft (S10)
Near-legendary here at Geek Towers (despite occasionally hitting a tad too close to home!), this take on MMORPGs is one of South Park’s most creative and inventive half-hours. The boys are hooked on Warcraft, but when a renegade player begins to regularly and irrationally kill them in-game, it is up to Cartman, 21-hours-a-day of boar catching, an inspired ’80s fight montage, and the Sword of 1,000 Truths to prevent the end of the world (of Warcraft).
Combining traditional South Park animation with machinima in-game footage from Warcraft, this rates among the show’s most visually exciting episodes. For Warcraft nerds, there are dozens of references to catch – but even if you’re not an expert, there’s much to love here – who wouldn’t smirk at Butters’ penchant for RPG Hello Kitty: Island Adventure? Inspired.
Trapped in the Closet (S9)
Stan as L. Ron Hubbard reincarnated? From minute one, this episode feels like an instant classic. Even if you’re only passingly familiar with South Park, you’ll be well-acquainted this instalment, one that went on to become one of the most controversial in the show’s canon. Yes, it’s the Scientology episode; the episode that led to Isaac Hayes’ Chef permanently leaving the show; the episode that relentlessly and remorselessly ridicules Tom Cruise, John Travolta and R. Kelly; and, yes, the episode that dedicates a full five minutes to describing the minutiae of the Scientologist doctrine, from Thetan levels to overlord Xenu.
The show is played comically straight at points – the words “this is what Scientologists actually believe” are imprinted on the screen throughout the aforementioned montage, leaving Scientology to parody itself – and there’s plenty of laughter to be had at the expense of the sundry celebrity “cameos.” It’s a hilarious deconstruction of a target that has always been legally problematic to satirise. The capper? The closing credits, credited entirely to “John Smith” and “Jane Smith” in a bid to allay judicial responsibility.
Grounded Vindaloop (S18)
Never the program most committed to conventional story structure, this episode of South Park may just be the most formally exciting to date: a never-ending loop of an episode, Inception-esque twists at every turn throughout the show’s climactic act. A fun setup—Cartman tricking Butters into believing that he’s in a virtual reality—kick-starts 22 minutes in which it’s never really clear what’s real. The Oculus Rift customer service department give Cartman a call, informing Cartman that he is stuck in virtual reality himself; as Cartman, Butters and the boys battle to get discern what’s real and what isn’t, layer upon layer of complexity stacks up, and the customer service department—who are doing a total recall of the headsets—prove hilariously useless.
A gem of an episode that delivers a strong story, some fantastic parody elements, and a genuinely hilarious take on outsourced call centres; it demonstrably proves that Park has plenty of creative gas left in the tank.
Imaginationland (Parts I, II, and III) (S11)
Originally intended as the second South Park movie, this three-part episode is epic in scope and jam-packed with gags. The three-parter kicks off with a bet revolving around whether Cartman has seen a leprechaun in the woods. To the surprise of Kyle, they do stumble upon a genuine leprechaun, who warns of an impending terrorist attack on the imagination of the USA. The next day, the gang is transported to “Imaginationland,” the place where both all creations ever invented by the human mind reside; when terrorists find a way in, it is up the South Park gang to try and help the U.S. government reclaim the imagination of the nation.
Pop culture references abound: from Stargate-like entry, to a Saving Private Ryan-esque massacre, and a finale that makes the climactic battle of The Return of the King look like a playground spat. There’s also the return of the Cute Forest Critters and the Man-Bear-Pig, and dozens of amusing Imaginationland cameos: Popeye, Freddy Krueger, Luke Skywalker, and Jesus rate among the highlights. Of course, despite the drama, Cartman will not give up his quest to make Kyle follow through on their leprechaun bet… during which Kyle had agreed to suck Cartman’s balls. Comedy gold.
A classic example of South Park taking a simple concept and really running with it, “Cartmanland” is an utterly inspired 22-minute wish-fulfilment extravaganza. Cartman inherits $1 million from his grandmother (she fears the rest of the family would blow it on cocaine) and immediately buys a nearby amusement park. The catch? This isn’t intended as a business investment: he’s keeping it to himself. He’s having a whale of a time, and Kyle’s frustration at the way everything’s going perfectly for Cartman physically manifests itself in the form of a hemorrhoids. When business expenses mean that Cartman must begin letting in visitors, the personal investment becomes a financial success, and Kyle literally begins to lose the will to live.
On the DVD commentary, Trey Parker notes that the episode almost didn’t get made, as they feared it too simple and cliched a concept; while it’s true that this isn’t among the more complex entries, it’s unquestionably one of the funniest, jam-packed with fantastic moments. A gem of an idea, extrapolated to its natural, nutso South Park conclusion, that really draws on five seasons of familiarity with these characters.
The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers (S6)
Butters may well be South Park’s most undersung resident (while he can’t quite topple Eric Cartman from the show’s top spot, he may just rank second) and this episode rates among his most memorable outings. The naïve nervous boy accidentally watches an adult film instead of The Two Towers, and when the mistake is rectified, he regresses to a Gollum-like creature in his bid to get the video back.
Packed with Lord of the Rings references—from a gang of teenagers who look like orcs to Cartman literally becoming Gandalf—the episode, much like its inspiration, is driven by one long chase: the guys’ epic quest to return the video to the shop before they have a late fine. Of course, Butters and the kids’ parents are all trying to lay their hands on the “precious” porno too…
This feature was originally posted on Den of Geek UK.