I would debate to the death this little diddy: South Park has been consistently great throughout it's run. I also believe that most people wouldn't disagree to be honest, so there's not much debate within this subject and of course, this is not what this series of articles is about. So what is my unpopular opinion this time? Well, it's a simple and rather controversial opinion: I think South Park was best in the first three seasons. Now before I defend my opinion to the death, I want to clarify a few things, One: People have asked me "So do you think the movie is the start of the downfall?" to which I say: No, Not at all. In fact, I personally believe The South Park Movie is the magnum opus of the show, if you count it as a big episode, which I kind of do to be honest. Two: People sometimes want to know whether I really enjoy the newer episodes or whether it's just fine or filler for me. Well, to that I say I definitely enjoy the show, it's one of the smartest comedies disguised as the un-smartest comedy ever and I personally believe this is the only show of the "Big Three" (The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park) that is even trying anymore. To divert the subject matter for a second, I personally believe The Simpsons is such a half-empty affair these days in terms of story-lines, wit and general importance to animated history that for me, regardless of a few good episodes here and there, it comes off as a shell of what it once was. As Doug Walker of Nostalgia Critic fame had expressed recently, we're all just waiting for The Simpsons to get canceled so we can start reveling in just how much of an influence it has had on our culture. However, I give it slack. Who doesn't, right? I mean hell, it's The Simpsons. They have been on forever, had countless directors, writers, producers, etc switched up throughout their run and have tackled every storyline in the book... In my personal opinion, some slack has to be given.
Family Guy on the other hand somehow comes off as a shell of a shell of the show it once was. To compare Family Guy to The Simpsons and the influence the latter show had on the former would take us forever. It's evident in it's characters, premise and humor. In fact, it's the most forgiven rip-off of any show ever released in my personal opinion. But for it to become so lethargic and for it to play down to it's audience so much in the later seasons actually baffles the mind, comprehending how it's still on the air is a dilemma that can never be solved. Now, when you take into consideration the laziness of the first three seasons anyway and the way it got around not being a sketch show with their “Like that time I...” gimmick, plus them stealing the formula for a premise, this show hits some new level of apathetic unawareness, a blind ignorance of just how much has been copied and how little effort has been put in, thus: A shell of a shell.
Now this is where South Park comes back into play. South Park, for a variety of reasons, has managed to completely avoid the pivotal “Jumping the shark” moments that The Simpsons and Family Guy so easily transcended. Where The Simpsons struggled in it's vitality and relevance, South Park thrived, where Family Guy devolved their persona's, South Park evolved with the times in maturity, humor and emotion. It is very easy to suggest that with the tripe that is popular within this era of television, Family Guy's very low-brow, straight to the point jokes are more in line with public consciousness right now, but I want to give viewers more credit than that. I think that ten years down the line (hell, I'm already thinking it now) South Park is going to have more of an effect on television history than you even know and it's not going to be the same meteoric rise to the top that The Simpsons had and it's not going to be as catastrophically game changing as The Simpsons either, it's going to be consistency. Tell me another show that has had the same amount of time on air as South Park with the same cohesive quality this show has had and I would be legitimately gob-smacked. But I guess this leads to another question: Well then, if you think South Park's been so great all the way through and keep raving and ranting about it's consistency, do you really prefer the first three seasons? Why? Well, time to get down to it, it seems.
My first point to be made about the first three seasons of South Park is that less is more. Graphically, South Park's first three seasons, especially the first two, characterized a defining style of animation that would continue throughout the series run. It was a lazy, inexpensive, just graduated from high-school way of doing things... and everybody went nuts for it. South Park toys and dolls everywhere, the world went crazy South Park for the first few years and much like Simpsons-Mania, demolished the mainstream media of anything but itself. Controversies were extremely common what, with it being such a crude, adult cartoon and this just made kids want to watch it more. I was in third grade when I first started watching South Park and I have to admit, my rabid fandom came from mixing two passions of mine, crude, mindless humor and a very original, very organically apathetic animation style. Except, you know, back then my mindset was more "Ha, he swore, Ash! Turn it down or Mom is gonna hear..." So, as the seasons went on, the animation style stayed but the vintage style didn't quite remain. I think that the very obvious answer as to why is that the digital age really came through in a big way, animation got less expensive, it also got “better” simplistically, removing a lot of the timeless grit of the earlier seasons of South Park, along with the already mentioned Simpsons and Family Guy. It wasn't just South Park that was penetrable in the digital age and in that, I think they lost a little of what gave the animation style so much clout.
Next: The writing. The writing in the first few seasons especially was so enticing in just how limitless it was with constructing hilariously unpretentious jokes with nothing. Although the third season would take a directional shift in a more political, opinionated direction, the first two seasons definitely set the bar high in terms of what you can do with almost nothing. Take the episodes Volcano or Death, nothing of real importance happens here... it's just really, really fun to watch these kids be little bastards and don't pretend like you weren't a terror when you were a kid because guess what, even if you've forgotten, you were. I know I was. With such a looseness in terms of a main plot for the episodes, it mostly comes down to how much you find fart jokes, bastard-children and a surreal world full of situations parents want to believe never go down, but totally do, funny. Of course, South Park is a much more surreal, out of this world reflection of childhood in a suburban, go-nowhere town and as a kid who grew up in these exact surroundings, I can relate to this extremely well and I think most people can. Also thinking about it more, it seems to fit perfectly, there's nothing to do in dead-end towns such as the ones a lot of us grew up in, so nothing gets done, instead it all comes down to developing your character, your worth, making jokes, etc. I think that's where South Park got everything completely right in the first three seasons, it lived inside of a world that gave it nothing, so it gave nothing back in return, it passed the time... and in my personal opinion, it was better off because of it. Even when the storyline progressed into something a bit more substantial it didn't really sustain much in terms of importance, take the episode Mecha-Streisand, despite the fact that it's pretty much a thriller mini-movie in terms of atmosphere, it's still not trying to make you think about your priorities or political views... it's just making you realize the obvious: Barbra Streisand kinda sucks.
The humor is next on the agenda and I also think this is where South Park varies most depending on what season or era of the show you're watching. The first three seasons are very much about making you laugh, with minimal interruption from the story-lines, after the movie, the next batch of seasons are based around more character development and character elimination, bringing new characters such as Butters to the forefront whilst also giving more of the parents development and removing uninteresting, vintage characters such as Pip, whilst the third generation of South Park is where they have very much gotten comfortable with who the best characters are to team up (Cartman and Butters, for example), who's got the best personality for the storyline (more attention to former sideline characters, side as Randy Marsh in later seasons), how far they are going to go with it (With Apologies to Jessie Jackson), it's a comfortable middle-ground of referential-story lines and humorous personalities and considering just how long the show has been running, the continuous quality programming is commendable. I think this is where you personally are going to find which generation you enjoy most, the humor. A lot of people would say that in the first generation, the characters were generally under-developed and relied on the stereotypical jokes to get them through... and I would agree. Kyle is a Jew, ripped on for this. Stan loves Wendy, ripped. Cartman's a fat-ass, ripped. Killed Kenny, ripped. But it was this simplicity that had a timeless charm for me, Cartman didn't NEED this crazy developed, complex persona because well... he's fat... and that was funny. Kenny dying constantly was a riot and the situations he would get in to make it happen were highlights of the episodes sometimes. Take Mecha-Streisand again where the whole killed Kenny joke is actually completely unrelated to the plot of the episode and there could have easily have been a situation in which to kill him, but instead the writers were like “Wait... we have all this crazy stuff going down, robots destroying the city... how about we just make him die on a tether-pole?”.
Also, is it just me, or was there this kind of, silent awkwardness in the first few seasons? Like, not in a bad way either. There were always these little silences in between conversations and at the end of conversations. Take the episode Summer Sucks where Mr. Garrison is seeing a therapist, after explaining that he thinks Mr. Hat is gay, the therapist tells Garrison that he believes he is actually the one who is gay, but he acts out his homosexuality with a homosexual puppet. After this conversation ends, there is this great comedic-timing awkwardness and silence after. This happens frequently throughout the seasons and it's this great little quirk that makes these episodes shine for me often. I think these silences actually serve another purpose in that it feels like there's space in the episodes... it's really evident when looking back on these episodes compared to later.
South Park is the special little show that blew up, continued to shine critically and to this day, really hasn't disappointed. I think we don't give it enough credit for this. In the first three seasons, South Park brought us a new, fresh and vibrant graphical style, a crude, laid back, bad-ass attitude that would be synonymous with the late 90's, a humor that thrived on almost no important story-lines and a great atmosphere all it's own. It's incredibly hard for a show to be running for so long and stand the test of time, but it did it. I'm proud of Matt and Trey for never neglecting their little child in South Park and I hope it the best in the future. Do I think the newer episodes are better than the old? No, as I've explained previously. Do I still watch South Park on premiere day? Yep... and you know what? If they keep up the quality, I think I always will.