South Park’s 15th season begins tonight (Comedy Central, 10pm), and somehow, over more than 200 episodes, it’s managed to remain a vital part of the pop landscape — and not just because it’s shamelessly vulgar and reliably hilarious, though that helps. South Park also does things other shows don’t or can’t do.
1. It sets a tone
South Park was doing political commentary and blistering satire on Comedy Central for two years before the dawn of Jon Stewart era of The Daily Show. And as much as The Simpsons created the provocative primetime cartoon, South Park pushed the genre to an even-more-adult realm. Would we have Adult Swim without South Park? But while most groundbreaking comedies start to look staid after inspiring a new generation to push boundaries even further (when was the last time Saturday Night Live shocked anyone?), South Park remains one of the edgiest shows on the air, even after 15 years.
2. It actually knows how to make fun of celebrities
In a sea of schlocky bits about Tom Cruise being gay, there’s but one “Trapped in the Closet.” Everyone calls Kanye West an egomaniac, but the Imma Let You Finish meme can’t compete with “Fishsticks.” Make all the J-Lo jokes you want, but it’s impossible to top Cartman’s ridiculous hand puppet. And somehow, amid the controversy surrounding Passion of the Christ, the best takedown of Mel Gibson involved him crapping on Cartman’s face in “The Passion of the Jew.”
3. It has the best distribution model
Why can’t every show be freely archived (with tags!) online?
4. It does a lot all at once
Last season’s “Coon vs. Coon and Friends” (the third in the “Coon” trilogy) satirized superhero movies, made fun of the BP oil spill, crammed in some H.P. Lovecraft jokes, and provided a metanarrative about Kenny’s repeated deaths and resurrections. Oh, and it made fun of Burning Man and Whole Foods, too. Other great comedies, like 30 Rock, can buckle under trying to stuff too many premises into 22 minutes.
5. It never feels compelled to grow up
The animation is a little tidier these days, and the tertiary characters are more fleshed out, but episodes like “Whale Whores” or “Creme Fraiche” fit right in among the show’s earlier episodes: The series still loves to skewer anything people could be passionate about, whether that’s activism, religion, parenting, or just the Food Network. “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs” might be about The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s as scatological and immature as any moment involving Mr. Hanky. South Park may be immature, but at least it hasn’t grown up.