For over two decades, South Park has invited us to meet some friends of theirs: everyone from AWESOM-O to ‘Tom Cruise’ have headed to Colorado for a dose of timely and often controversial capers.
But which are the best South Park episodes? The ones that have stood the test of time, etched themselves into the minds of millions, and crudely crowbarred their way into our hearts? It’s a tough one to ponder, especially given the show is now 23 seasons and over 300 episodes deep.
But we’ve done it. After arguments galore and more than one person willing to pull from the Scott Tenorman playbook, we’ve settled on a list of the essentials: the 25 best South Park episodes that skewer and slice contemporary culture in their own inimitable fashion. It was easy, mmkay. Honest.
25. "Casa Bonita" (season 7, episode 11)
Kyle invites Stan, Kenny and Butters to Casa Bonita, a Mexican-themed restaurant in South Park. Cartman is livid for being left out and turns on the charm, which leads to Kyle suggesting that, if Butters can't go for any reason, Cartman can take his place. Cue a dastardly plan to take down Butters.
What makes this episode so funny is the lengths Cartman is willing to go to get what he wants. He tells Butters that a meteor the size of Wyoming is about to hit Earth, and hides Butters in a bomb shelter. Of course, Butters' parents get worried, so Cartman delves deeper, telling him the meteor has hit, civilisation has ended, and toxic radiation has turned what's left of the human race into rabid zombies. If Trey Parker calls this episode one of his favourite, it is definitely good enough for us.
24. "Grounded Vindaloop" (season 18, episode 7)
South Park often mines technology for laughs, and "Grounded Vindaloop" does so almost perfectly. The episode riffs on call centre employees, the Matrix, and so much more. Better yet, it centres on one of the best relationships on the show: Cartman messing with Butters until he takes it too far.
Butters’ breaking all the VR ‘rules’ is hilarious, as is the incessantly annoying call centre employee, Steve. However, it’s the twist ending (which we won’t spoil here) that sets it apart from some of the other tech-based episodes. It's a sci-fi parody done right – and one of the slickest South Park episodes around.
23. "Coon vs. Coon and Friends" (season 14, episode 13)
South Park is often at its funniest when Eric Cartman shows himself unable to play nice with others. That personality defect soars to new heights in "Coon vs. Coon and Friends" as he enlists the wrath of Cthulu to battle his friends. It’s a concept that would be built upon in South Park: The Fractured But Whole but, arguably, it was done even better here as Cartman and Cthulu’s buddy-buddy partnership sees them take down several easy targets, including the Burning Man Festival and, hilariously, the Whole Foods chain of supermarkets.
While the episode treads familiar territory, skewering the likes of Justin Bieber and LeBron James, it’s the weird and wonderful ending that will stick in your memory. Kenny, as hooded vigilante Mysterion, proves he has immortality once and for all – and the show finally let's us in on a dark secret: every time Kenny dies, his mother becomes pregnant with a new Kenny. Gross… and a little bit genius.
22. "Fishsticks" (season 13, episode 5)
South Park has always been brilliant at lampooning celebrities, and "Fishsticks" does an excellent job of mocking Kanye West.
In the episode, Jimmy comes up with a joke. Of course, everyone in South Park finds this hilarious and Cartman tries to steal credit for the whole thing. As the joke becomes a worldwide phenomenon, the only person who doesn't understand the punchline is Kanye West, who becomes increasingly desperate to know why everyone is laughing at him. After he crashed Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Awards, Comedy Central played the episode four times back to back.
21. "Go God Go" (season 10, episode 12)
Technically this is a two-part episode, but "Go God Go" and "Go God Go XII" are invigorating watched for anyone who has ever put a big question mark in the religion column. Cartman attempts to freeze himself to make the three week wait for the Nintendo Wii tolerable, but ends up emerging in the year 2546. There's also an incredible sub-plot featuring Richard Dawkins helping Mrs. Garrison teach evolutionary biology (resulting in a passionate affair). By the end of "Go God Go XII" you're left wondering whether Cartman is stuck in a time loop, doomed to repeat his mistakes for all eternity.
20. "Guitar Queer-O" (season 11, episode 13)
Parker and Stone couldn't resist taking a pop at Guitar Hero just as the world became enthralled by the video game series. The episode sees the main gang, including Clyde, Token, Jimmy, and Butters, playing the game, with Stan and Kyle smashing the 100,000 points record. The two are contacted by a talent agent and become rock star celebrities in the space of 24 hours.
The fun really starts when Stan is encouraged by his manager to drop Kyle and partner with a kid, Thad, who has memorised all the buttons for all the songs. Soon enough, Stan gets hooked on the game Heroin Hero. While the episode satirises the stereotypical rock-and-roll lifestyle we imagine rock stars to have, it also mocks obsessive, point-chasing gamers.
19. "Imaginationland" (season 11, episode 10)
Probably the best three-part episode in South Park history, "Imaginationland" is so rich in characters, sub-plots and general laugh-out-loud humour that it's worth watching time and time again. The first part sees Cartman searching for a leprechaun with Kyle, who offers to suck Cartman's balls if he manages to find the apparently fictional being (hence the episodes alternative title, "Kyle Sucks Cartman's Balls").
What follows is a crazy, psychedelic journey into the world of cartoons and a warped Disney-style world, with the annoying catchy "Imagination" song. There's also a parody of Saving Private Ryan, a great scene with Michael Bay, M. Night Shyamalan, and Mel Gibson, plus a whole terrorist sub-plot that is so farcical it almost, almost, makes sense.
18. "Marjorine" (season 9, episode 9)
Poor Butters. The kid can't catch a break. In "Marjorine", Cartman becomes convinced that the girls have a device that can predict the future. In an attempt to infiltrate their secret club, Cartmen convinces Butters to fake his own death and return to school as a girl. Meanwhile, Butters' parents believe their son has actually died and are terrified he will return as the spawn of Satan.
Come the episode's ending, the long-suffering Butters is locked in the basement while his dad kills a saleswoman for him to feed on. Interestingly Parker and Stone are not the biggest fans of this episode, but we'll be damned it if doesn't make us laugh every single time.
17. "Super Fun Time" (season 12, episode 7)
South Park's take on Die Hard once again pairs the hapless Butters with the evil Cartman. Mr Garrison takes his class on a trip to Pioneer Village – a living history experience where actors pretend to be townspeople – and they soon become involved with a weird hostage situation. Hilariously, none of the actors break character, which makes them easy fodder for the baddie Franz.
While all this is going on, Cartman draggs Butters to an amusement arcade next door called Super Phun Thyme. When they return to Pioneer Village and see the police cars, they believe they are the ones in trouble and decide to sneak in. Watching Butters eventually drag Cartman's unconscious weight back to the school bus helps put this onto our choice for the best South Park episodes.
16. "Best Friends Forever" (season 9, episode 4)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone often work on episodes until the last possible moment so the show can be as timely as possible. Their tactic worked to devastating (and tragic) effect in "Best Friends Forever", which sees Kenny become addicted to the then brand-new PSP until, typically, he dies. After a conversation with God, Kenny gets brought back to life and put on life support. The media frenzy around the case then grows and grows as Kenny's legal guardians argue for his right to die.
Cartman eventually hijacks the search for Kenny’s will so he can get as much attention and money as possible, plus a ludicrous Heaven verses Hell battle, involving a golden PSP, takes place. However, it’s the real-world debate surrounding this episode that made "Best Friends Forever" so controversial. Terri Schiavo, a woman in an irreversible vegetative state whose legal guardian argued for her right to die, passed away just hours after this episode aired. Trey and Parker have since acknowledged they used the case as a starting point for the episode, and the result is one of the funniest and occasionally heartbreaking South Park episodes ever created.