Top Episodes is a new feature in which we handpick the definitive best episodes of a groundbreaking, beloved, or otherwise awesome television series. This time, we welcome you to come on down to South Park and meet some friends of ours. Sweet.
Prior to tonight’s season premiere, 277 episodes of South Park will have already aired. It’s fair to say that within that vast volume, there are a couple dozen episodes I never wish to see again, a great deal more I’ll gladly kill a half-hour with should I stumble upon any of them, and at least that many, if not more, I’d consider classic satire from, let’s face it, a cartoon about four foulmouthed fourth graders. The odd thing about breaking down South Park’s 20-year run that way is that others might agree wholeheartedly with those categories and rough percentages while talking about entirely different episodes — their favorites perhaps being near the bottom of my appreciation list and my go-tos, in their eyes, only fit for rewatching when channel surfing yields no waves.
(Read: The Top 100 South Park Songs)
For instance, the four authors of this piece, all longtime fans and writers on all things South Park, each submitted a top 10 list of episodes as a toe-dip into whittling down our options. We figured, worst-case scenario, we’d chop the contenders down from 277 to 40, undeniable progress. However, I think we all suspected that there’d be a lot of overlap. In reality, there wasn’t. Only one episode, our No. 1, appeared on all four ballots. Only one other episode, our No. 2, appeared on three of four. And the rest of our picks, to my eyes and personal taste, seemed like a random, arbitrary selection of forgotten favorites, meh choices, and even a couple complete head-scratchers. All of us have personal favorites, but critics, like us, are supposed to be able to wade past the mediocre and shine a light on the very best — and have that very best be the same very best. You might argue that our ballots lacked uniformity due to the sheer volume of great episodes to choose from, but that doesn’t account for how a handful of episodes I’ll never spend 22 minutes plus commercials watching again made it on our initial lists.
I think the struggle stems, in part, from South Park’s very ethos. Long ago, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone agreed that either everything or nothing in society is fair game to mock. Since then, they’ve overturned every pop-cultural stone imaginable, searching for the foibles and peculiarities that make us a flawed and ridiculous, if usually well-meaning, species. With a scope that broad, it’s impossible for the true gold, especially when we can’t agree on its carat, to cast the exact same glow across an entire audience. Additionally, South Park has become an institution, and with that status comes hard stances. For instance, just as many fans of The Simpsons all but dismiss later seasons, I’ve heard many South Park watchers claim that Parker and Stone had yet to find their true satirical stride until a few seasons in. Likewise, others argue that the show became too preachy in later years, a drastic departure from the superior early days when it was just a cartoon about kids being kids — as if most normal childhoods involve volcanoes, big gay boat rides, and anal probes.
We can’t all be right, can we?
Well, maybe. Some pieces of our pop culture reach a rare, exalted plane of existence. I’d argue South Park qualifies. It’s been part of our culture, our habits, and our pop-cultural lexicon for two decades now. It’s grown up as we have and watched over us — that’s what satire does, of course — as we’ve watched it. As much as we’d like to be definitive — to say, this is how it is — we’re talking about a late-night cartoon, unlike any other before it, that shows no end in sight. While we feel like we’re rounding up episodes of a classic, for all we know, we might just be scratching the surface of a series still in its infancy. So, check out our list, agree or disagree, and take it for what it is: the episodes that we — well, in each case, at least one of us — will keep returning to time and time again. It may actually be less a reflection on the show and more a revealing look at your four foulmouthed writers.
So, come on down to South Park and meet some friends of ours.
*Be sure to tune in to my South Park recaps each Thursday morning throughout the season.