This sendup of the media circus around the Terri Schiavo case -- in which the decision whether or not to remove a feeding tube from a woman in a persistent vegetative state became a referendum on right-to-life -- benefited immeasurably from South Park's six-day production schedule. Parker and Stone were able to get their two cents in on the case while it was happening, with a sensible take about how unseemly the whole ordeal had become. "Best Friends Forever" aired just hours before Schiavo died, and showed how disturbingly relevant South Park can be. It was recognized with South Park's first Emmy win for Outstanding Animated Program (it's won four more as of 2016).
Yay, blood orgy! South Park has always been great at parody, and this one, of animated Christmas specials like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, is the best straight-up parody the show has done. The cuddly lil' Satanic creatures are almost as cute as the orphaned abortionist mountain lion cubs!
South Park is a platform for Parker and Stone's libertarian beliefs, and "Douche and Turd" is perhaps the purest distillation of their politics. In fact, Reason magazine said the episode, in which Stan refuses to vote for either of the candidates for school mascot -- a giant douche and a turd sandwich -- "pretty much sums up how most libertarians approach politics." The episode aired the week before the 2004 Presidential election and two weeks after the release of Parker and Stone's movie Team America: World Police. It was South Park's first episode after Parker and Stone spent a grueling summer finishing the movie, which Stone called "the worst time of my life." You'd never know from the strength of the episode, but then again, Parker and Stone thrive under pressure.
It's a less consequential episode than many others on this list, but "Major Boobage" has some of the series' most creative animation (it's inspired by the cult '80s movie Heavy Metal and features a rotoscoped porn actress). It also introduced the concept of "cheesing," or getting high by huffing cat urine, into America's mental lexicon.
Long before Parker and Stone produced their other great creation, The Book of Mormon, they took satirical aim at Mormonism in this 2003 South Park episode. Like their Tony-winning musical, the installment was highly critical of the religion, while acknowledging how friendly and helpful its adherents are. Not only did it foreshadow The Book of Mormon, it also set the template for the even greater religion-baiting heights that were to come in "Trapped in the Closet" and "Cartoon Wars."
"201" is too self-referential for non-fans to really appreciate -- to its detriment, because it's the most controversial episode of the whole series and could otherwise be the show's most powerful statement about freedom of expression. The second half of a two-parter, it's about celebrities who have been targeted by South Park banding together to steal the prophet Mohammed's power to not be mocked or depicted. (The episode represented Mohammed with a black "CENSORED" bar.) The show's creators and Comedy Central all received threats and the network ultimately caved, censoring the episode to the point of incomprehensibility, never rebroadcasting it, and failing to make it available online through sanctioned channels. "201" made South Park too dangerous. Five years later, the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was the target of a terrorist attack for doing something very similar to what South Park did in this episode.
South Park was ahead of the rest of Hollywood in turning on Mel Gibson. "The Passion of the Jew" aired in March 2004 at the height of The Passion of the Christ's cultural domination. The episode called out the movie's perceived anti-Semitism and depicted Gibson as a jabbering lunatic. South Park was later vindicated by Gibson's infamous outbursts spouting racism and violent threats.
"ManBearPig" is sort of a critique of Al Gore's 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, but mostly it's just a perfect example of South Park at its silliest. The former VP comes to South Park to warn people about the "super serial" threat of the ManBearPig, a creature that's half-man, half-bear and half-pig. In a commentary track for the episode, Trey Parker called Al Gore "actually a really complex character -- it's one of those that you feel sorry for but he's also the antagonist." South Park is great at wringing humor and pathos out of dumb ideas.
"Make Love, Not Warcraft" is a dead-on satire of the meaningless, hollow sense of achievement video games bring. In its video game-based animation -- using actual characters and gameplay from World of Warcraft -- it anticipates Twitch, the video game livestreaming platform, by several years. (Surely Parker and Stone would have something to say about watching other people play video games turning into a billion-dollar business if they gave it their attention). But this hilarious episode's true legacy is that it contains arguably the grossest moment in South Park history. And in a series with bodily fluid in every episode, that's really saying something. If you've seen the episode, you know exactly what we're talking about.
This episode is a sick anomaly. It doesn't make any social commentary, includes an actual celebrity guest appearance (from the band Radiohead, of all people), and has no subplots. The only plot is Cartman getting revenge on a ninth grader named Scott Tenorman for tricking him. Cartman makes Scott Tenorman's parents into chili and feeds them to him unwittingly, then licks the bully's salty tears off his face. It's very crazy. It's the first episode that pushed Cartman into full-on villainy. To this day, it's tied for the highest-ranked episode on IMDb. South Park fans are a sick bunch.
Season 19 was South Park's most consistent season in years, largely owing to its new-ish serialized aspect. Season 18 was the first to have episode-to-episode continuity, but Season 19 did it better, because it focused on South Park's true bête noire, political correctness. It introduced the new character PC Principal, a frat bro who bullies everyone into thinking the right thoughts. Every episode was solid, but "Stunning and Brave" was the most biting, taking on the over-the-top rhetoric of campus PC culture. As the first episode of a season that came after a few underwhelming years, it showed that South Park still has plenty of gas left in the tank.
South Park made a two-part episode invoking the prophet Mohammed to diss rival cartoon Family Guy's inferior writing. It was also about censorship, and life imitated art when the controversy about showing an illustration of Mohammed inside the show ended up happening to South Park in real life -- Comedy Central censored the episode, thus proving the show's point about the importance of defending freedom of speech. But "Cartoon Wars" was mostly to say Family Guy isn't funny. The real polemical heavy lifting would be done later in "201," a less funny episode than "Cartoon Wars."
"Sexual Harassment Panda" is an exercise in complete silliness that resonates almost in spite of itself. The Sexual Harassment Panda character makes absolutely no sense. The show acknowledges that the character makes no sense. The show doesn't care and builds an episode around the character anyway. The character sings a silly song that you will have in your head for the rest of your life. The episode eventually makes a really good point about how suing civil institutions hurts everyone -- except the lawyers -- because the money comes from taxpayers. In retrospect, it benefits from not being tied to current events, so it still feels fresh upon rewatching. And that'll make you a happy panda.
"Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride" is the just the fourth episode of the first season, and it was the first to establish the show as one with real political ideas. The character of Big Gay Al is stereotypical, sure, but his sexual orientation is both matter-of-fact and key to his goodness. He's a positive depiction of an openly gay character in an uncharacteristically un-preachy way -- both for South Park and for TV as a whole -- at a time when homosexuality was always handled clumsily, if at all. It would be a stretch to say that Big Gay Al taught teenage boys to be more tolerant, but he didn't hurt, either. The episode was even nominated for a GLAAD Award in 1998, as well as an Emmy.
In later seasons, the adults of South Park have taken on a much bigger role, especially Stan Marsh's father Randy. Parker and Stone are pushing 50, and Parker has said that they relate more to the adults now, so they write more for them now. The creators' shift in perspective is clear in Season 15's extraordinarily well-written "You're Getting Old." Stan turns 10, and finds that with age comes cynicism and depression, as life gets repetitive. Meanwhile, Randy also can't deal with getting older and losing his edge, and he and his wife Sharon get divorced after growing apart. It ends on a genuinely sad note, as Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" plays over a montage of dreams fizzling out. At the time, it seemed like it could be the last episode of South Park, but was actually just an experiment in tone. The next episode reset the show and returned to the status quo, except Stan remained depressed. The downer mood shows that South Park could be a BoJack Horseman-style sadcom if it wanted to be.
"Fishsticks" is a perfect South Park episode. It contains everything great about South Park: absurdity that walks the fine line between genius and stupid, stealthily complex characterization (we go deep into the mind of Cartman in this one), vicious celebrity satire, over-the-top violence (South Park called its former network-mate Carlos Mencia an unfunny joke thief and decapitated him, but to his credit, Mencia thought it was funny), timeliness and original music. Also hilarious: Kanye West saying the episode hurt his feelings. People are still calling Kanye West a gay fish to this day. It's not funny anymore, but this episode is still hilarious.
It's not the most representative South Park episode, but watching it almost 20 years later it's still remarkable how assured Parker and Stone were from the very beginning. The pilot lacks the social commentary and inimitable absurdity that would come to define South Park, but a lot of the other signature pieces -- the meaningful speech that summarizes the episode's "lesson," the virtuosic vulgarity, the catchphrases ("screw you guys, I'm going home!") -- started here. Some of the jokes from this episode remain among the show's most well-known, and are so thoroughly part of the vocabulary of a certain type of person that it's almost jarring to remember that they're from the very first episode.
This Scientology-parodying episode is one of the most controversial of the whole series, and arguably the one with the most significant real-world legacy. Before "Trapped In the Closet," Scientology was generally known as the quirky, disreputable religion practiced by celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. After it aired, millions more knew about Xenu and thetans, which were explained through some of the series' finest animation underneath a caption that read "This is what Scientologists actually believe." It also highlighted the church's litigiousness. Scientologist Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef, left the show as a result of Parker and Stone's mockery of his religion. The episode was never actually banned, but rebroadcasts did get shelved amid rumors Tom Cruise was mad and planning to sue. The episode changed the way people talk about Scientology, and emboldened more people to speak out against it. It's hard to imagine activist group Anonymous' campaign against Scientology happening without this episode. And the closing "John/Jane Smith" gag might be the best joke the show has ever done.
The closest thing the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut has to a sequel is the three-part "Imaginationland," which was compiled into a standalone movie and released on DVD. It's the most ambitious episode South Park has ever done, and features the best animation ever seen in the series. It's also disgusting and offensive, sophomoric, incisive (if you're reading this, you probably know all about how fictional creatures have real impact on people's lives) and hilarious. It's everything great about South Park, done on the grandest scale the show ever attempted.