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.
20. “Safe Space”
Season 19, Episode 5
Original Air Date: Oct. 21, 2015
Welcome to South Park (What’s New?): South Park has gone PC, which means a more progressive school principal, a new-and-improved Randy Marsh on the bandwagon, and, naturally, a Whole Foods. And what do Eric Cartman, Steven Seagal, Demi Lovato, Vin Diesel, and plus-size lingerie models all have in common? Their safe spaces, of course, courtesy of Butters Stotch and poor, starving kids with iPads in the developing world. Because why should any American ever have to feel shame … when Butters and poor children can just delete their negative feedback from social media?
Song of the South Park (Best Musical Moment): Cartman and co. can post all the “ripped” topless photos they like and, thanks to their safe spaces, never have to deal with the reality that maybe people won’t be super stoked on them or, gasp, maybe they shouldn’t be such shallow, self-absorbed assholes looking for constant validation to begin with. Either way, there’s no denying their song about “bully-proof windows” and “troll-safe doors” helps make this episode a safe space for laughter.
That Seems Familiar (Parodies): The show largely parodies the basic idea of safe spaces, which, as a concept, don’t entitle someone to zero criticism and are usually places for marginalized people, not Vin Diesel, to have a voice. We also see several parodies of starving foreign children commercials as Randy Marsh and others circle further down their shameless spiral.
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: He is safe, but for how long?
The Quotable South Park: “It’s a pretty brutal job sifting through all that darkness.” –Butters Stotch on transforming Cartman’s social media accounts into a safe space.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: Our bodies are designed to signal certain things. For instance, physical pain alerts us to injury, and feelings of shame exist so that we realize when we’re acting like total assholes. As Reality tries to teach us in this episode — after it sends Butters hurling naked through a second-story window — the world doesn’t exist to provide us with constant validation, and maybe, just maybe, we should feel a little shame about how we “take our spoiled lives for granted.” In many ways, “Safe Space” is an incredibly relatable episode. It’s so easy to get caught up in what other people say about us on social media or get annoyed, as Randy does, whenever we feel pressured into donating a lousy dollar at Whole Foods after dropping a couple Jacksons on frivolous chocolate-covered junk, forgetting that there are people with real problems out there. What Parker and Stone remind us of is that every once in a while, we really do need Reality to enter our safe spaces and smack us around a bit — it’s what helps separate us from the Cartmans, or at least the Steven Seagals, of the world. –Matt Melis
19. “Trapper Keeper”
Season 4, Episode 12
Original Air Date: November 15, 2000
Welcome to South Park: For such a big spectacle, “Trapper Keeper” sure keeps the action fairly close to the vest. Even so, there are a couple of strange visitors who come to South Park, specifically a doofus Kyle Reese/T-800 amalgamation named Bill Cosby (BSM-471), who’s been sent to stop Cartman’s Dawson’s Creek Trapper Keeper, and celebrity rabble rouser Rosie O’Donnell, who’s not very happy about Mr. Garrison’s harmless Kindergarten election involving her nephew Filmore. Both of these new faces, however, succumb to deaths brought on by Cartman’s narrative and both will hardly be missed.
Song of the South Park: It’s not the greatest gag, but it’s now kind of impossible to hear Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” without adding a little inflection from Cartman. Thanks, Trey Parker.
That Seems Familiar: Well, if you’ve seen the greatest sci-fi films over the last 50 years, then “Trapper Keeper” should ring all kinds of bells for you. Much like Cartman’s gluttonous Dawson’s Creek Trapper Keeper, Parker and Stone liberally lift motifs, narratives, quotes, and scenes straight out of James Cameron’s Terminator series, Katsuhiro Otomo’s epic anime blockbuster Akira, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise, and Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking spectacle 2001: a space odyssey. It’s a smorsgasborg of references for geeks, one that has managed to outlast its B-story, which is an obvious parody of the whole recount chaos that came during the contentious United States presidential election of 2000 between George Bush and Al Gore. Even if that section of the episode is fairly dated, it’s still funny watching Garrison get flummoxed over such a stupid situation.
Oh, My God, They Killed Kenny: As Cartman starts mutating into his version of Tetsuo, he accidentally (?) smashes Kenny with his bedroom door, splattering him against the wall of his house. Everything happens so fast that Kyle doesn’t even get to finish his signature “You bastards!” line before he flees the scene. If we’re going with the whole Akira parallels, one might argue Kenny’s death is akin to Tetsuo killing Yamagata, only Stan and Kyle hardly feel the need to avenge Kenny. He’ll be back.
The Quotable South Park: “My name is Mr. Garrison, and I’m the new kindergarten teacher. I used to be the third grade teacher, but I had a little ‘nervous breakdown’ and went into the mountains where I lived off of ‘rat carcasses’.” Again, there is nothing that is funnier on this show than watching Garrison bring the sarcasm and the sass.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: There’s nothing particularly revelatory about “Trapper Keeper”. By the Fourth Season, we already knew that Parker and Stone were fully capable of welding cultural commentary with asinine irreverent subplots (see: “Mecha-Streisand” from Season One). But they do it well on this episode, exhibiting a finesse they would lose in later seasons, especially when they started expanding their more spectacular narratives over two or three episodes. What’s intriguing about “Trapper Keeper” all these years later, though, is that it was ostensibly just a way for Parker and Stone to comment on the then-disastrous election between Gore and Bush. Yet, whereas so many of their topical episodes have come and gone without much staying power, there’s something timeless about “Trapper Keeper”, and much of that endurance might have to do with the pop culture the episode parodied. Reason being, we’re always going to remember Terminator, Akira, and 2001: a space odyssey, and younger generations are always going to seek them out. Though, relevance aside, the episode is also a must-see for bringing out the best in the series’ two most popular characters: Cartman and Garrison. This is greatest hits stuff right here for both of ’em. –Michael Roffman
Season 6, Episode 2
Original Air Date: March 13, 2002
Welcome to South Park: Kenny’s still dead, and Butters has become, in the words of his father, the “perfect little void filler” for Stan, Kyle, and Cartman, which prompts the boys and their parents to go on a weekend ski trip to Aspen on a timeshare company’s dollar. Maybe more than anything, we see a new friendship dynamic. Within the first few minutes of the episode, Cartman both urinates and rubs shit on Butters; it’s really a pretty sound metaphor for their relationship going forward. So, yeah, that tossing of Butters’ supple, young body to NAMBLA way back when wasn’t a fluke.
Song of the South Park: Stick around for Mr. Slave’s version of “Take On Me” during the end credits, but you might not even make it that far without the help of a time-saving montage. Stan’s gotta get good fast at skiing if he’s ever going to beat Tad, save the youth center, and win Heather’s affections (who the fuck is Heather?). Luckily, cool ski instructor Thumper has a sports-training montage all set for him. And just what could be better than a montage that explains in detail just what a montage is? Hell, even Rocky had a montage.
That Seems Familiar: Well, it should! Just as the later “Stanley’s Cup” was a send-up of just about every sports film ever (one in which Stan finds himself on the wrong side of the inevitable happy ending), “Asspen” mocks an ’80s genre that almost always saw young people — whether they were on the slopes, at the beach, or away at camp — facing a shutdown at the hands of the rich and corrupt. From the cheesy credit graphics to “Take On Me” soundtracking the group’s arrival to the spot-on stock characters and plug-and-chug formula, Parker and Stone prove they’ve watched more ’80s flicks than you can count up on a Wellington Bear calculator. Oh, and, yeah, that’s Pet Sematary’s Jud with some useful info about the history of the K-13 ski run, and the cute, dorky girl’s breasts are a callback to Total Recall: “Quaid, start the reactor!”
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: Kenny’s dead. He is no more; he has ceased to be. To kill him again, you’d have to resurrect him next episode just so he could die another cruel, gruesome death. What kind of a sick gimmick is that? … Oh, yeah.
The Quotable South Park: “If you french fry when you should pizza, you’re gonna have a bad time.” I like to think cool ski instructor Thumper’s words of wisdom were running through Mike’s, I mean Ike’s, head as he crashed through that ski lodge wall. Oh, cookie monster.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: Well, we could go on about how this episode reveals once and for all that timeshare companies are secretly taking over the world one free-weekend-condo offer at a time. But you already know that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. What’s more notable here is that, yes, South Park might be best known for its scathing satire and knocking smug celebrities down a peg or three million, but episodes like “Asspen” also show that Parker and Stone are pop-culture junkies with a soft spot for even our dumbest fare and fads. You can see that as Stan slowly gives into the who-gives-a-fuck plot to beat the baddie, save the center, and get the girl. Only in cheap, crummy (usually softcore) movies from a certain time do these scenarios ever play out, but dammit, if you ever find yourself in one, you’ll be damned if you’ll let that jerk get with Heather! Wait, who? –Matt Melis
17. “Woodland Critter Christmas”
Season 8, Episode 14
Original Air Date: December 15, 2004
Welcome to South Park: It’s Christmastime in South Park, and Stan happens upon a forest clearing full of adorable, cuddly animals, left despondent when it appears that their lack of a manger and a nearby mountain lion will stop the birth of their savior. Unfortunately for Stan, when he reluctantly decides to lend a helping hand in the spirit of the season, it turns out that all the cuddly animals are also practicing Satanists, hellbent on delivering the Antichrist. Oh, and that mountain lion that Stan kills at their behest? A mother of three.
Song of the South Park: Some of the funniest South Park songs are the transparently lazy ones, when Parker and Stone have clearly barreled their way to the end of a production deadline by farting out the first melody line that pops into their collective hivemind. “Christmas Time Is Once a Year” falls into that category, a perfectly saccharine (and short) holiday ballad that contains basically no songwriting beyond the title phrase.
If this sounds familiar to you beyond the episode, it’s also the song that plays in The Stick of Truth during Randy’s abortion mini-game.
That Seems Familiar: From the sing-song rhyming narration to the adorable character designs, “Woodland Critter Christmas” pays distinct homage to the innocently precious Rankin/Bass holiday specials of yore, sans the stop-motion animation. According to the episode’s DVD commentary, the 1979 special John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together was a point of influence, as was the cult horror film Event Horizon.
And really, all stories about a zealous collective attempting to birth the spawn of Satan owe at least some debt to Rosemary’s Baby.
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: Season Eight was an uneventful time for Kenny deaths; he’s visible in class during the story’s climactic reveal, but that’s it for the young man this time around.
The Quotable South Park: “Oh look, there’s Santa Claus! Yay! Let’s eat his flesh!”
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: “Woodland Critter Christmas” is one of the best examples of how funny the aimless, largely purpose-free episodes of South Park can be when handled well. As a season finale (and the last Christmas episode for a decade), it’s something of a shrug, but it’s that unassuming status that makes the nightmarish mid-episode reveal all the more hilarious. It’s a goofy gimmick, until it suddenly and without warning mutates into one of the show’s more outlandishly gory episodes of its middle period. Stan’s increasingly terse responses to the cloyingly playful narration might be an easy joke, but it’s one that Trey Parker (as writer) wrings for all it’s worth, building up to the even more ridiculous reveal that the show’s Satanic fantasy is a long, elaborate con from Cartman, a holiday writing assignment designed to once again berate Kyle’s Judaism. It’s ridiculous, it’s sophomoric, and it’s quintessentially South Park. Plus, there are few things more inherently funny than a cute woodland animal encouraging his friends and viewers to “Hail Satan!” –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
16. “Here Comes the Neighborhood”
Season 5, Episode 12
Original Air Date: November 28, 2001
Welcome to South Park: Rich people. Or, as the adults in South Park prefer to call them, “richers.” And yes, these new arrivals also happen to be black. In some of its smartest commentary on racism, South Park finds its citizens thinly masking their hatred as concern for their own community. When they want to scare away the “richers” — whose ranks include Snoop Dogg, Will Smith, and new primary character Token — a mob led by Mr. Garrison first places flaming lower-case “t”s in their front yards. You know, for “time to leave.” When that doesn’t work, they dress up in ghost outfits that look suspiciously like the robes worn by the Ku Klux Klan to scare away the rich folk.
Song of the South Park: “Why Can’t I Be Like All the Other Kids” honors the South Park tradition of mournful piano ballads sung by children. In the vein of Kyle’s “A Lonely Jew on Christmas”, Token feels like an outsider, but due to his higher financial bracket rather than his religion. After yearning to eat diced hot dogs for lunch and play with sticks and pine cones like his classmates, he decides to invite more rich families to South Park, which kicks off the episode’s central conflict. What starts as melancholy quickly becomes triumphant — at least until Garrison and the other adults get involved.
That Seems Familiar: Will Smith gets his own version of The Street Warrior, his home adorned with several knockoff posters of his own films (The Legend of Baggy Pants, Guys in Dark Suits, etc.). But the episode’s finest and most prominent pop-culture parody comes when, feeling ostracized by the other rich kids (who are much richer than him), Token goes to live with the lions at the zoo.
The big cats’ leader is a pop-culture mashup of several kings of the jungle. He perches on a rock like Mufasa (The Lion King gets referenced earlier in the episode); has the name Aslan from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and, in keeping with Trey Parker and Stone’s obsession with Rankin/Bass specials, has a voice that echoes like King Moonracer’s in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And if you think that last one’s a stretch, just look at the episode’s plot. Like Rudolph and his friends, Token — feeling like a misfit — has to bow before a lion and ask if he can join its community. The lions’ love of bad jokes, though? That’s all Parker and Stone.
Oh, My God, You Killed Kenny: While Kenny is only seen lying dead in this episode after a spirited game of Roshambo without anyone remarking on it, he dies permanently (at least for a while) in the next episode, aptly titled “Kenny Dies”.
The Quotable South Park: “We’re not going to rip on you for being rich anymore. Because you got your feelings so hurt for being ripped on, now we think you’re a pussy.” –Kyle and Stan to Token at the end of the episode.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: That anyone who thinks they live in a post-racial society is full of shit. So many racists who complain about black people insist they only mean “a certain kind” of black person — one who’s poor, unruly, and causes trouble. By reversing these stereotypes and making all of the black people in South Park rich and polite, Parker and Stone show that racism is never truly about economic status; it’s about the color of someone’s skin. The point gets painfully sharpened in the final seconds of the episode, when Mr. Garrison says: “At least I got rid of all those damn ni…” The screen cuts to black before he can complete the racial slur, but he’s already made the town’s true intentions known.