Plenty of adult animated shows seem to last forever, but the most impressive thing about the decades-long run of “South Park” is the series’ willingness to evolve and change. Sure, the bones of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Comedy Central series have remained consistent: its foul-mouthed dialogue, offensive humor, surrealist tendencies, and central group of four elementary school boys have carried from the first episode through and beyond the show’s 300th.
But the exploits that Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny get into around their Colorado mountain town these days look a lot different than they did back in 1997, when the show first premiered. Over the seasons — and decades — Parker and Stone have stayed the primary creators behind the show, and watching it back is one way of tracking their growth as writers. After three seasons that relied extensively on toilet humor (not that fart and poop jokes have ever faded from the show), the two eventually became impressive satirists, and “South Park” transformed into a ruthlessly topical comedy tackling practically every controversy and hot-button American issue within reach.
More from IndieWire
More shakeups have occurred over the seasons; characters were retired (R.I.P Chef), or faded into the background, and others (Randy and Butters, most prominently) grew to rival the four leads in screentime. For a few seasons, the show broke out of its episodic format in favor of serialized plotlines to mixed results. Nowadays, regular “South Park” seasons have been shortened, but are accompanied by a series of Paramount+ special episodes. It’s a strategy that has drawn controversy, but it wouldn’t be “South Park” if people weren’t arguing about something.
While “South Park” has managed to stay relatively fresh across 26 seasons, not every episode is created equal. The show’s famously fast-paced production schedule and top-of-the-minute parodies means the series can comment on scandals and news stories faster than many other animated shows on television. It also means that plenty of episodes don’t have a lot of staying power beyond the year or month (heck, even week) they aired. In some cases, the jokes really don’t land with the eyes of hindsight; see “ManBearPig,” which mocked global warming activism and held up so poorly Parker and Stone made a sequel twelve years later to apologize for it.
Diving into “South Park” is more challenging than simply watching the show from beginning to end. While the first three seasons have a few fun episodes (“Cartman’s Mom is a Dirty Slut,” for one), they’re often a chore to get through, and it takes awhile for Parker and Stone to really figure out the characters and fine-tune their humor and writing. So, if you want to dive into “South Park,” the best way to get hooked is simply with one of the show’s crown jewel episodes: and luckily, there’s no shortage of great ones.
The best “South Park” episodes stand out for different reasons. Some are memorable as major milestones for the show and its characters, while others caused significant ripples across pop culture. Some are format-breaking and visually inventive events, and others are regular episodes with the funniest, laugh-a-minute scripts in television. “South Park” will probably be around as long as Parker and Stone are alive — so there’s really no better time to start watching than the present.
Here are the 35 best “South Park” episodes of all time, from “Casa Bonita” to “Awesom-O.” Plus, we’ve called out the MVPs for every episode.
Best of IndieWire