The Five Stages of ‘South Park’

This Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the first episode of South Park. In the time since then, the animated comedy about four foul-mouthed boys from Colorado has been a consistent presence in the public conscience, evolving from a show that drew audiences due to its shock humor to one of the most important satirical voices in America. With that in mind, let’s consider how South Park changed over the years by looking at the five distinct eras of the show’s two decades on the air.

Seasons 1-3: The Developmental Stage

South Park is the second most influential adult cartoon of all time, trailing only The Simpsons, and much like that show, it got popular pretty much out of the gate, quickly evolving into a phenomenon. Because the show captivated audiences so quickly, nobody seemed to notice how underdeveloped it was (the same also holds true for the first season of The Simpsons). The show had an immediately identifiable hook: adorable 8-year-olds who spoke like the most vulgar adults. It doesn’t seem shocking now (not when considering all the far-more-offensive shows that have appeared since South Park debuted), but it was unlike anything that had been on television before.  

That being said, it also feels a little bare-bones in retrospect. Yes, there’s some glorious absurdity to be found in the early years, but it’s also fairly simplistic compared to what the show would one day become. Randy Marsh was a generic dad-type character rather than the beloved legend he evolved into later on, the main characters’ personalities were still being fleshed out, and Cartman – the villain from day one – was mostly just a loudmouth rather than the sociopath he eventually became. Cartman’s rivalry with Kyle wasn’t there yet, and really, Stan and Kyle were largely the same character, reacting to the stimuli around them rather than having clear views of their own.

None of this is to say the early episodes can’t be enjoyable; it’s still fun to watch Barbra Streisand lust after the Triangle of Zinthar only to be foiled by Robert Smith, and despite being massively overused in 1998, “respect my authoritah!” can still be pretty funny if you’re in the right mood. It’s just that South Park became something far deeper and more interesting than what it was in its first few seasons, and as a result, going back to them feels a tad underwhelming, especially considering what a big deal they were at the time. South Park’s stream of third-grade F-bombs won it an audience out of the gate, but it would ultimately prove to have much more to say.

Seasons 3-6: The Experimental Era

Matt and Trey must have realized the limitations of their show’s first two seasons, because starting with season 3 (and the movie), they would gradually begin experimenting with some more ambitious concepts. The best example in the third season would be the trilogy of “Cat Orgy,” “Two Guys Naked in a Hot Tub, and “Jewbilee,” which told the story of a meteor shower in South Park from three different perspectives. The show had already done one cliffhanger with the saga of Cartman’s father, but this was an ambitious bit of storytelling that would pave the way for later works like the “Imaginationland” series as well as the serial storyline of recent seasons.

In the fourth season, the experimentation would be taken a step further with the decision to age the main characters by placing them in the fourth grade. Admittedly, they still looked and acted the same, but it set the standard that South Park would not be resetting a perpetual status quo the way The Simpsons had. We also saw Mr. Garrison be forced to teach kindergarten after (accidentally?) picking up Cartman in a chatroom, a ridiculously absurd punishment that set the stage for the several evolutions Garrison would go through over the course of the show’s run.

The fifth season saw some of the show’s most important episodes. “Super Best Friends” might have just seemed like an amusing superhero spoof at the time, but it would ultimately become known for its portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad, which lead to the controversy surrounding both “Cartoons Wars” and the show’s 200th episode, where Matt and Trey would receive death threats for the portrayal.

Just one week later, there was “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” which featured one of the most shocking moments in the entire series. After being tormented by an 8th grader for most of the show, Cartman gets revenge on him by killing his parents, cooking them into a bowl of chili, and getting Scott to eat them. 16 years later, this ending is well-known, but at the time, it was stunning. It was proof that South Park could stave off stagnancy and still do things that could shock its viewers, no matter how desensitized they might have thought they were.

Towards the end of the fifth season, and throughout the sixth, the writers explored a natural question: what if they actually killed Kenny? He had died at the end of every episode (save for a few) in some of the most horrific ways imaginable, but he’d always re-emerge. That was the case until “Kenny Dies,’ where the boys are shocked to find out that Kenny is in the hospital and terminally ill. There’s plenty of humor derived from the boys experiencing grief over the oncoming death of someone who dies every week, but once what’s going on is firmly established, it’s actually pretty brutal to watch Stan and Kyle genuinely grieve over their friend. After Kenny died for real, the boys would spend the sixth season learning to live without him, giving a chance for Tweek and Butters to shine. Kenny was eventually brought back via divine intervention at the end of “Red Sleigh Dawn,” but the saga where he actually died proved to be a strong end to the “Oh my God, they killed Kenny!” era, as well as another chance for the show to prove it could thrive outside of its comfort zone.

Seasons 6-8: The Absolute Peak

There’s some slight crossover here, as I’d argue that season 6 fits in as one of South Park’s early experimental years as well as the moment the show reached its full potential. In seasons 3-5, the show tried out new ideas, often with strong results, but consistency remained an issue. Episodes like “How to Eat with Your Butt,” “Chef Goes Nanners,” and “Great Expectations” showed that while South Park was amazing at its best, it was nonetheless vulnerable to off nights.

Season 6 was where everything perfectly clicked; the show established the relationships between the characters and figured out how to comment on current events without ruining the fun of watching the gang interact with each other. The result was some of the show’s strongest material ever. This was where Butters temporarily replaced Kenny and revealed himself to be an a amazing character. We would watch him gain 50 pounds so he could become the City Wok equivalent to Jared from Subway (it was a more innocent time) and put prosthetic testicles on his chin so he could go on The Maury Povich Show. When all of this somehow wasn’t enough to placate Stan, Kyle, and Cartman, who replaced him with Tweek, he created his villainous alter-ego, Professor Chaos, who commits heinous acts like momentarily getting an order confused at Bennigan’s. Butters has become one of the most essential characters of South Park, and this was where he broke out, proving to be just as important as the four main boys.

In the following two seasons, we would see Eric Cartman’s evil become perfectly defined. The show knew he was the most morally repugnant character, but in any episode, he could vary from a typical jerk to a murderous sociopath; this was where the writers found the perfect balance, putting him a little bit closer to the latter. The naivete of Butters made him the perfect foil for Cartman’s maliciousness, which is how we got all-time classic episodes like “Casa Bonita” and “AWESOM-O.” Cartman convincing Butters that South Park had experienced nuclear annihilation just so he could go to a birthday at a Mexican restaurant was just too perfect, as was him spending days on end stuck in a robot costume to keep Butters from releasing the tape of him dressed as Britney Spears dancing with a cardboard cutout of Justin Timberlake. The dynamic between Butters and Cartman has been one of the most consistently enjoyable parts of the show, and this was where it came to fruition.

Elsewhere, there were just a ton of really great episodes from these three seasons: “Lemmiwinks,” “Christian Rock Hard,” “Stupid Spoiled Whore Playset,” “Raisins,” “Fatt Butt and Pancake Head,” “Good Times with Weapons,” “The Biggest Douche in the Universe,” “Up the Down Steroid,” and several others. South Park defined itself beyond being “the show where little kids say the F-word,” evolving into a show that could make light of whatever ridiculous topic was in the news while also featuring strong and consistent characterization. South Park has had plenty of great moments since, but seasons 6-8 represent its golden age.

Seasons 9-17: The Fractured But Whole Era

Yes, I’m stealing the name of their video game to describe this nine-season stretch of the show’s run. Hey, it’s catchier than calling it the “slightly diminished but still pretty good” era. These seasons featured a lot of what made seasons 6-8 so great, but just….not at quite as high of a level. For every classic, you’d see episodes where the lack of inspiration would set in. In season 10, there were great episodes like “The Return of Chef” and “Stanley’s Cup,” but also stinkers like “A Million Little Fibers” (aka the one with Oprah’s minge), which probably seemed funnier in the writers’ room than it did when it reached our television sets.

Pretty much every season could be summed up this way; a few episodes that reminded you that South Park could still be as funny as anything on television, and a few that made you think it was getting long in the tooth. Even the beloved “Coon and Friends” trilogy looked a little iffy after part one, and was ultimately saved by the rewarding ending. Likewise, while the “Imaginationland” trilogy of season 11 was inspired, doing a two-part episode about Peruvian flute bands a year later remains one of the more confounding decisions Matt and Trey have ever made.

Season 17 was perhaps the ultimate example of the up-and-down quality of these years. On one hand, you’d have the brilliant console wars trilogy, along with “The Hobbit,” which adroitly combined humor and emotion. But on the other, you’d have weak episodes like “Let Go Let Gov” and “The Ginger Cow,” which suggested the show was running out of steam. Perhaps that was why Matt and Trey decided to shake things up the following season, bringing us into the most recent era.

Seasons 18-20: The Serialization Experiment

Season 18 began with typical South Park hijinks, and the show gets some shots in at both the rise of dubious tech industry start-ups and the NFL’s most unfortunately named franchise when the boys create a startup called The Washington Redskins, playing on the fact that the actual team had lost their copyright over the name earlier that year. It was a solid episode, but fans had no notion that something was different until about the third episode, when elements of the previous shows began occurring in subsequent shows. A seemingly one-off joke where Randy Marsh performed as Lorde at a friend’s birthday party would lead to an extended plotline where he actually was Lorde and had been leading a double life the whole time.

The serialization in season 18 made it one of the most rewarding seasons in years, as storylines like Stan becoming addicted to freemium gaming and Cartman becoming a Pewdiepie-esque YouTube star were tied together perfectly. SInce it worked so well in season 18, Matt and Trey would introduce another serialized arc in season 19, this one being a bit more ambitious. While season 18’s episodes were ultimately tied together, they could also just as easily be taken individually. In season 19, each episode would be directly linked to the previous one.

South Park courted controversy during season 19 by taking on the general concept of “political correctness” as it relates to modern society by introducing PC Principal, an aggressive (and notably straight, white, and male) authority figure who is hyper-woke to the social justice concerns of the day. The writers get in the typical shots at “safe spaces,” some of which were way too heavy-handed (the bad guy is literally named Reality), but also made some solid points about both the rhetoric of political correctness being misappropriated for the wrong causes as well as the rise of native advertising (they tie these themes together by having PC Principal be an ad himself). If Matt and Trey’s “let’s see who else we can offend” philosophy was something that pushed you away from the show, this probably wasn’t your favorite season. Still, the storytelling was well-paced and captivating.

The same couldn’t be said for season 20, however, which had some interesting ideas, but never tied them together. We get Cartman embracing feminism, Gerald Broflovski revealing himself to be the merciless internet troll Skankhunt42, and Mr. Garrison-as-Trump desperately trying to destroy his confoundingly successful presidential campaign. Unfortunately, the show never figured quite what to do with all of these ideas, and the season grew stagnant and boring, with the trolling plotline moving at an especially tepid pace. The Garrison plotline fizzled out once Trump won in real life, because Matt and Trey thought Hillary would win and didn’t have a concrete backup plan. The show also introduced the concept of “member berries” (talking berries that act as a drug that makes you feel nostalgic) in the first episode, then abandoned it near the end of the season. It was if they knew had painted themselves into the corner and just wanted to end the season one way or another.

The final episode was entitled “The End of Serialization as We Know It,” and Matt and Trey have confirmed they’ll be going back to the single-episode format with the upcoming season 21. With the problems they encountered in season 20, it’s easy to understand why, but still, seasons 18 and 19 (18 in particular) will go down as two of the show’s most interesting, rewarding seasons, and ultimately the era should be viewed as a success.

The Five Stages of ‘South Park’