Almost two decades into its run, the crass and crude animation pulls no punches in satirising pop culture
Why binge watch South Park?
Brave isn’t quite the right word to use when talking about a show like South Park, still launching blisteringly fearless satirical attacks on everything in the world after 19 years. Brave implies and inherent worthiness to the show, which is the kind of smug narrative it skewers on a weekly basis. South Park doesn’t hold a mirror up to American society so much an angle the glass so that a fine beam of scorching light can burn it for a while. After that, they’re pretty much done with a topic, occasionally returning to it if only for an off-colour joke.
What ostensibly began as the tale of four elementary school friends, cartoon boys that terrified parents by spouting profanity and routinely killing off one of them in increasingly brutal and bloody ways, has adapted well over its now 20 seasons. While Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny do still take the central role in what’s going on in the Colorado town, over time South Park has expanded its scope, taking in new characters, developing pre-existing ones to take much bigger roles in the plot, and mercilessly mocking celebrity culture as framed through the socio-economics of the snowy mountain town set in a near permanent winter.
In its 20th seasons, a point at which the other long-running animated sitcom had faded into irrelevance, Parker and Stone took the biggest editorial gamble in the history of South Park – changing the series from its standalone episodic nature of self-contained stories and moving towards a season-long arc. Using what is actually the oldest trick in the TV playbook, telling a number of grand stories across 10 episodes, the show was never more relevant and continues to justify its place as a searing piece of cultural satire.
Plus they say things so gobsmackingly wicked it’s hard to look away.
How long will it take to watch?
Considering the first episode, rather uninvitingly titled Cartman Gets an Anal Probe, was broadcast in August 1997, for anyone who’s never seen an episode, binging is going to take a while. The 270 episodes spread across the 20 seasons will take a total four days, three hours and 22 minutes to work through. Given the foul-mouthed nature of the show, its garish colour scheme and (initially, at least) its relatively crude animation style, it’s probably best not to watch more than three in one sitting, which is about an hour, which means you’re looking at the guts of three months to work from start to finish.
Where can you binge it?
Having been acquired by Comedy Central a number of years ago, the show’s 20th season is currently being broadcast in the UK and Ireland shortly after its US premiere, making it available on a number of TV packages here. Sky On Demand also has a number of the later seasons available to stream, but the first 14 or so are not currently available – not the worst problem, as the later ones are better and funnier anyway. Prices for each season of the DVD boxsets vary considerably, from as low as €6 to €28 for the most recent. With all of the inherent risks of buying second hand, some of them can be sourced for as low as 0.01c, albeit with a grossly overpriced postage rate.
Any hurdles to overcome?
The early seasons are incredibly patchy, with the puerile humour not to everybody’s taste and not presenting the show as the whip-smart satire it would later go on to become. If you’re going to work through every episode, take solace in the fact that they are, at least until season 19, so episodic that you could start at any random point before that and work your way through the episodes à la Cartman – you would lose some of the more nuanced character developments, but then again nuance is not the show’s forte.
Aside from that, there is the issue of dated topicality. Once the show became more brazen in its approach to ripping shreds off the rich and famous and poking fun at cultural trends, it became increasingly current. That currency doesn’t always age well, so some of the things they’re mocking have become stale. But with a running time of only 22 minutes, enduring something stale is not particularly gruelling.
Who steals the show?
Among the original four, there is no getting past how Eric Cartman is one of the most intriguing characters ever developed on television. A monster child, fuelled by his unquenchable ego and the refusal of the adults around him to not indulge his temper, he represents the absolute worst of the American dream – entitled, selfish, angry, mean, and driven only by his need to consume.
After Eric, arguably the show’s ace in the hole is Randy Marsh, Stan’s geologist father, who becomes a cipher for whatever affectation or passing fancy is currently the in thing stateside these days. A proud and stupid man child, the inverse to Cartman’s child man, Randy brings a hilarious humanism to the show, in which all of his self-sacrifices are performed for everyone else to see and praise.
A scene to sample:
A scene from the current season, which is focussing on online trolls, plays brilliantly with audience expectations. Suspecting Cartman as the culprit, the boys of South Park Elementary, pushed to breaking point, come to the conclusion that the only thing that can be done is what they have to do. They lead the unsuspecting Eric to a remote cabin in the woods...
What to follow up with once you’ve finished South Park?
Maybe something a bit lighter? After binging 20 hours of crass and crude iconoclasm, maybe give the unwavering sweetness of Bob’s Burgers a go to cut through the bitterness. If that seems too much, American Dad is arguably a better pairing than Seth MacFarlane’s other animated hit, Family Guy, with Roger the Alien working easily as the Methadone fix to all your Cartman heroin needs.