South Park 20 Years Later

I can still clearly remember getting ready for school and hearing a morning news show talk about the premiere of a new animated show that all parents should be aware of lest their children see it and be horribly corrupted. That show was South Park, now incredibly set to premiere its 20th season on September 14th. Though I didn’t start watching it when it initially premiered two decades ago, I hopped on board a few years later when my parents paid less attention to what I was watching and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. I recently went back to the beginning to look at how the show has evolved over all these years.

The first thing that’s apparent when you watch the inaugural season is the animation. Yes, the paper cut out style is still there now, but when the show premiered its first episode, ‘Cartman Gets an Anal Probe’, it was actually made with paper. It’s fascinating to watch the landscape of the show change over time as characters take off and others fade away. The emergence of Butters has led to some of the most classic episodes of all time by playing off his dynamic with Cartman. Conversely, the loss of Isaac Hayes and therefore Chef, was a major blow the show managed to weather. Beyond that, it seems almost quaint to think about how much controversy the show caused at the time. It’s crude, yes, but it’s populated by fart jokes and insults like dildo. Episodes are more likely the focus on hijinks and adventures like chasing underpants gnomes than religion. That being said, the backbone of what has carried the show and made it so great for so many years is also immediately evident. Episodes like ‘Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride’ and ‘Starvin’ Marvin’ touch on social issues and human foibles right from the show’s inception.

Part of what has helped South Park endure for so many years is its timeliness. New episodes are famously produced in a single week, not months like other shows, which allows Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and their team to touch on pop culture touchstones and social issues as they’re unfolding. They don’t just comment on the conversation they are a part of it. They shape it. And somehow this timeliness hasn’t dated the show. In fact, cyclical society we are, some episodes become relevant all over again. Episodes like ‘Chinpokomon’, an endlessly watchable and quotable episode parodying the Pokemon craze from the show’s third season feels practically new in a world with Pokemon Go.

With this in mind, there is seemingly no end to South Park in sight. There will always be pop culture foolishness to poke fun at and social issues to subvert. Creators Parker and Stone, however, have come close to burning themselves out before, most notably while trying to make Team America: World Police and when creating The Book of Mormon, between runs of South Park. These days though they’re not slowing down, their second video game, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, is due out in December, they don’t seem to be in danger of fizzling out anytime soon. I hope that this season 20 premiere, and the extra press surrounding such a milestone, reminds people how great South Park is and how much we may have taken it for granted as it’s endured. Here’s to 20 more offensive, intelligent, and hilarious seasons of an animation institution.