The animated television show South Park has changed since its premiere in 1997, but it is still a great show overall.
South Park has been a ridiculously divisive show since it first aired in 1997. It’s been extremely controversial throughout the entire duration, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t widely enjoyed by a lot of people, some of which probably wouldn’t admit to it.
While the first season initially got mixed reviews, that was probably a consequence of the extremely offensive nature of the show. In fact, one reviewer claimed that the first season of the show was as close as one could get to a perfect season of television. The show has changed a great deal over the years, which only makes sense considering there are 23 seasons and over 300 episodes. But which is better? The season that started it all, or everything to follow?
First Season: It Includes Cut-Out Animation
When people mention South Park off-handedly, there are most likely three things they’re going to mention. Those three things would be the controversies surrounding the show, the stinging social commentary, and the fact that the show is made from cardboard cutouts. One of those things isn’t entirely correct. The pilot episode of the show was done using cardboard cutouts since creators Matt and Trey hadn’t yet secured backing even though George Clooney passed copies around to 300 friends. While that process is no longer used and production has moved to Autodesk Maya, that signature look remains.
Later Seasons: The Computer Animation Looks Great
While a lot of the show is rendered purposely to look as if the show were crafted entirely out of construction paper, that technique has fallen out of use since the pilot. The show also doesn’t get its storyboards shipped out to Korea, like a lot of other animated shows that are created in the US. The show is done now by an animation team of about 70 people, meaning that instead of requiring months to get a new episode out, some episodes have been started and finished in a matter of 3 or 4 days. During the first season, an episode would take roughly 2 to 3 weeks, meaning that now, South Park can react to controversy quickly.
First Season: It Introduces The Well-Missed Chef
While there are various explanations for the exact reason that actor and musician Isaac Hayes left his iconic role of Chef, the most commonly accepted story behind his departure is that he’s a practicing Scientologist who decided that he was fed up with the showrunners and writers constantly lampooning the religion.
Regardless of why he left, he’s sorely missed. Chef was a character who would frequently break out into song to explain grown-up situations to the kids or offer them advice to help them out with their various struggles. One thing’s for sure, without his direction, the kids get into ever more increasingly absurd situations.
Later Seasons: It Keeps Up With Current Events
While the show occasionally decided to try tackling controversial subjects in the first season, the most insightful it got were situations such as when Stan’s gay dog ran away from home. In the later seasons, we get political commentary and satire. While the show says that it makes fun of everyone equally, the creators of the show are pretty outspoken right-libertarians, which means that their satire isn’t exactly as neutral as they might paint it to be. Regardless of if you agree with Trey and Matt politically, their message is usually timely and not lacking in some serious oomph.
First Season: It Pushed The Envelope… Almost Too Far
While the show has been embroiled in some really major debacles, the first season is particularly notorious. Not so much for its subject matter as it is, but for the fact that it pretty much single-handedly broke the brains of parents who had previously been outraged by something as comparatively innocent as Bart Simpson saying “hell”. In fact, the response to the show was so vitriolic that the host network, Comedy Central, received tons and tons of letters from angry parents in addition to angry reviews in magazines and newspapers. Some quotes from these types include saying “The show never should have been made” and “They don’t just push the envelope, they push it off the table”.
Later Seasons: It Gets More Outlandish As It Goes
The first season does indeed start with an episode called “Cartman Gets An Anal Probe” so there’s really no pretending that the show wasn’t absurdly outrageous from the start, but it is fair to say that the show gets a lot weirder than the potential aliens eventually.
An example is the plot of the movie where Kenny goes to hell, or the other absurd saga where we’re introduced to “Princess Kenny”, an incarnation of Kenny that takes on the form of a magical girl complete with a transformation sequence right out of Sailor Moon. In addition to ridiculous scenarios like that, there’s also the episode where Cartman decides it would be a great idea to feed a kid who minorly inconvenienced him the remains of his dead parents. The show gets dark.
First Season: It Didn’t Try So Hard To Be Smart
While the show occasionally tried its best to include relevant political satire in the first season, it was mostly self-referential like when there was an episode about Kyle’s mother and the other parents getting upset by The Terrance And Phillip Show, which is essentially a 30-minute long fart joke. In the later seasons, the show would end up delving further into pretty serious issues in a fairly irreverent way. Back in the day, Trey and Matt would argue that they made fun of everyone equally, but at the end of the day, the only real thing they hold sacred is the integrity of art in the face of censorship. At the end of the day though, it is mostly fart jokes.
Later Seasons: One Word… Butters
A lot of the earlier seasons of the show, including the first, featured a running gag that occasionally exists to this day when the writers feel like it. In every episode for a long time, we’re assuming until the writers got tired of it, Kenny would die in various extremely graphic ways to comedic effect, only to reappear in the next episode.
After a while, Kenny was abandoned, believed to be permanently dead. Instead, he was replaced with a character who could actually be depicted speaking, a shy and nervous little boy named Butters Stotch, who secretly has some pretty crazy skeletons in his closet. He really makes a wonderful addition to the cast.
First Season: It Basically Launched Comedy Central
One of the things a lot of people don’t know about South Park or Comedy Central for that matter is that the show was integral to the success of the network. Perhaps it was a case of any publicity being good publicity, but ratings for the first season were absolutely through the roof, and they only went up as the season progressed. The current seasons and most of them in-between still have great ratings, but this first one is probably the reason Comedy Central is still around today after having birthed plenty of comedy classics.
Later Seasons: Celebrities Like The Show Enough To Sign On
During the initial season of the show, and honestly even today, many celebrities who are depicted on the show are shown in a rather mocking manner. At first, every single celebrity who ended up in the show was impersonated, as the intro card insists, poorly, by either Trey Parker or Matt Stone. Now, there’s a rather impressive roster of celebrity fans who have taken one for the team and allowed themselves to be placed into whatever demeaning scenario the writing team could dream up, including everyone from Radiohead to Cheech and Chong, all doing so with glee.