Since its premiere in 1997 with a little episode devoted to aliens and anal probes, South Park has pushed buttons, pulled triggers, and overstepped boundaries. With nineteen seasons under its belt, it's managed to offend even people who don't watch the show – and that's the point. You might dismiss it as a crudely animated cartoon filled with profanity, fart jokes, and offensive humor, but it's much more than that. The show is a funhouse mirror aimed at society. Trey Parker and Matt Stone take no prisoners and show no favoritism. They are equal opportunity offenders. Their approach might be exaggerated, but their social commentary is spot on and satire is scalpel sharp. South Park takes our faults and reflects them back at us. It makes us horror-laugh, gasp, and groan. We either change the channel or keep giggling … but we're also left thinking, even when we don't want to.
Notate bene: NSFW; some videos are offensive; here there be curse words; and due to YouTubery and the nature of most SP episodes on the following list, some previews are pretty balls and may not be terribly relevant to the main point of the episode, meaning you should go watch it somewhere!
Table of contents:
In spite of the Scooby-Doo level hijinks that take place in this episode, it stirred up some heated debate. As much as I hate to even type this, NAMBLA is an acronym for the very much real North American Man/Boy Love Association. In a quest to find more mature friends, Cartman stumbles upon the group, which is … more than happy to have him. The commentary? That in addition to monitoring whom your youngsters meet on the internet, NAMBLA is actually a thing.
No, I know. It's exactly what it sounds like. Cartman comes up with the idea of “crack baby basketball,” which is just as offensive and horrible as it sounds. This is how South Park takes on the NCAA, bringing attention to a problem that no one besides basketball players, their family, friends, fans and universities knew anything about. (n.b. This is one such irrelevant video, but please enjoy Butters because he is adorable.)
When did people start being able to say “shit” on TV? Well … it wasn't exactly because of South Park, but South Park certainly made it more widespread. Whether that's good or bad depends on the individual, but I think it's pretty cool. That's probably because I like to swear. This was South Park's way of thumbing its nose at the arbitrary FCC rules and the unbalanced Standards and Practices regulations that allowed a popular, sexy, primetime drama to get away with saying "shit," while other, less sexy, primetime shows could not. However, the episode also touched on desensitization and the idea that the more you say a word, the less exciting and provocative it becomes.
Point blank, this episode highlighted the problem with sex ed. In short, you just can't rely on schools to teach your kids everything about sex. There's misinformation everywhere, even in schools, and if you don't talk to your kids about it yourself, then yeah, your son might end up wearing a condom all. the. time.
"Bloody Mary" managed to offend religions in general, Catholics in particular, and people with substance abuse problems. It touches on two things: people's willingness to rely on something else – a miracle, a program, a book, or a statue bleeding out of its backside – to fix their issues, and the misconception that addiction is a disease that can never be cured and thus doesn't need to be managed.
Words do mean something. Racism is still a thing. South Park didn't call it by any means, but they brought light to the problem of language, racism, privilege, and a host of other issues in this episode where Randy Marsh disgraces himself on TV. During Wheel of Fortune, with the clue “people who annoy you,” Randy ends up with “N_GGERS.” He just has to come up with a vowel. The answer is “naggers.” That is not what Randy says. Here's the thing, though: what word did the audience guess? What thoughts went through the heads of the people watching for the first time? Randy is branded as “the n_gger guy” and begins to feel oppressed and judged. He insists that he feels the way Black people feel, and at the same time his son Stan tries to convince his token black friend, Token Black, that he gets why the word is so upsetting. Spoiler: he doesn't.
This isn't special because South Park took on Catholicism. Several things happen in this episode (uhm, spoilers):
• the parents of South Park's Catholic families, disturbed by the sexual abuse allegations against the church, decide to become atheists;
• Kyle bets Cartman that he can't insert food into his anus and crap out of his mouth … and Cartman wins the bet;
• inserting food up your anus and crapping out of your mouth becomes the new healthy, foodie, health-foodie trend;
• Father Mackie takes on the Vatican;
• and everybody learned something that day.
In one fell swoop, the show condemned the actions of the Catholic church, made a point that religion should not be blindly followed, made the point that trends should not be blindly followed, pointed out that religion should not be a trend, and put forth the idea that the bible might be a book of parables and helpful guides by which to live our lives. Boom.
This episode outraged everyone. It's succinctly described as a Terri Schiavo satire. Kenny dies kind of, as (almost) always. Cartman, pretending to be Kenny's best friend, soul mate, and sole possessor of his final wishes, wants to pull the plug – but only because Kenny “willed” his coveted PSP to his biffle. The episode wasn't an indictment against Terri's husband or her family, but it did make a point about her dignity: she completely lost her privacy. Another reason the episode caused an uproar? It ended up airing several hours before Terri died.
“Douche and Turd” is relevant every four years. It's the perfect answer to every argument you see every election year. Voter apathy is getting better, I think, but it's still an issue. More to the point, South Park Elementary's election to decide if their new mascot will be a douche or a turd reflects a few hard truths about the two-party system, if not the candidates themselves. The episode also takes several outrageous digs against PETA. I laughed, sorry.
In an old episode that's strangely relevant right now, South Park takes on tolerance – as in, over-tolerance. Is there such a thing as being too tolerant? There sure is. Acceptance is never a bad thing … except when it is. Sometimes things push boundaries and you do more harm than good when you tolerate them. That doesn't give anyone carte blanche to be an intolerant d-bag, it just means that there's a fine line between accepting someone and tolerating a bunch of bull. It's also a tweak at all the critics who decry South Park and its creators as bigoted and intolerant.
I love this episode, I confess. Sometimes South Park's quick production times line up perfectly – and yes, that means they correctly predicted Obama as the winner of the 2008 Presidential race. More importantly, they showed voters on both sides how misguided they were. The country's problems were not magically fixed by virtue of Obama getting elected, but neither did the world end. The President did get the epic bad-ass treatment in this episode, however.
Ah, the episode that caused Isaac Hayes to quit the show. South Park takes on Scientology and its (un)official figurehead, Tom Cruise. Not only does the show call out Scientology as a quasi-cult, it also depicts its leaders as calculating, money-hungry masterminds fleecing their flock for more and more cash. At the same time, it naturally plays up the rumors that both Tom Cruise and John Travolta are gay and unwilling to be open, even though it's totally okay and everyone will still love them. Ditto if they ditch Scientology. Also, R. Kelly. The idea was to show that not even Scientology, the most litigious religion in the world, is safe. Then again, the end credits did change every name to "John Doe" or "Jane Doe." Ohhh, Matt and Trey.
An episode about Britney Spears might not seem like a sharp take on social commentary, but considering that media attention makes Britney blow her head off and a huge crowd eventually kills her with camera flashes, it's pretty pointed. We put stars up on pedestals not only because we admire them, but because we want to watch them fall. Look at Britney before her comeback. Some of the same people who are now screaming, “YAAAAS, QUEEN!” were openly wondering when she was going to try to kill herself not too long ago. Look at the haters who froth at the mere mention of Anne Hathaway, Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus …
The infamous Muhammed episodes. Mostly, this was South Park going in hard on Family Guy, but censorship was more at the forefront than accusations of bad jokes and plagiarism. The episode was a dare. Will the terrorists win, it asked, if you bow down to censorship and take away our freedom of speech? Muhammed did not make an appearance in this episode. However, he did appear in an earlier episode with no apparent blowback – there will never be any blowback because it's been pulled from the South Park catalog.
Caitlyn Jenner stars in this episode, the first of a season that's already skewering today's PC landscape. It did not exactly denigrate Caitlyn at all, but it did shine a light onto people's opinions of and reactions to her. Namely, the episode revealed what happened if, at the climax of media madness surrounding Caitlyn, you didn't think she was stunning and brave. Even now, what if you just dislike Caitlyn Jenner as a person, irrespective of her gender?
Long story short: Cartman accidentally gets AIDS, Kyle is delighted at the irony, so Cartman infects Kyle. The episode makes many points beyond being offensive, however. It pokes fun at the legitimacy of charities, research funding, and the very rich by pointing out how ludicrous it is that some diseases go out of vogue and people seem to stop caring about them … and suggesting that Magic Johnson is still relatively healthy because money is the cure for AIDS.
In light of its relevance, I have to include another one of the current season's episodes. A lot of people are complaining about the PC theme in South Park's 19th season, but I think it's particularly on-point. In this episode, Cartman wants his little slice of the internet to be a safe space. He doesn't want anyone to say or do anything that offends, hurts, or insults him. Others soon jump on the bandwagon, demanding their own safe spaces. They wrap themselves in safe bubbles where they're never challenged, disagreed with, or forced to face the consequences of their actions. Uhm...
Love it or hate it, I bet you've talked about South Park, too, haven't you? Let me know what you find horrifying and/or hilarious.
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