5 episodes that signalled the decline of South Park

As a fan of South Park, I’ve always been looking into the show, searching for inspiration. However, I’m not afraid to criticize the show whenever I thought something was wrong. Usually this is in the context of bad episodes, but this time, I’m here to talk about the episodes that showed signs of the inevitable decline of the show.

Note that these episodes aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, a few of them might be good ones, but this isn’t about quality. It’s about the episodes that led the way for the decline of the show.

Without further ado, let’s get this started.

#1 – Kenny Dies (season 5, episode 13)

kenny dies

Even though this is from one of the classic seasons (the episode was released in 2001), there’s a point that this episode has to prove.

Prior to this episode, Kenny was the character who got killed in nearly every episode. Of course, this was mainly a shock gag, but everyone loved it, and it worked. However, like every recurring gag, there comes a time when the writers would get sick of it.

The creators of South Park were running out of ways to kill Kenny, and they were getting tired of writing the same thing over and over again, so they temporarily killed him off.

Thankfully, the episode itself was great, but I think that this had a side effect of its own. After Kenny was formally reintroduced in season 7, Kenny became increasingly less important to the show as a whole, almost as though he’s slipped into the background. Sure, he occasionally gets some of the limelight, but it doesn’t happen often, and to make matters worse, the writers still don’t let him speak without it being muffled.

#2 – Cartman’s Incredible Gift (season 8, episode 13)

cartman's incredible gift

Again, this episode isn’t necessarily bad, but there is something important I need to highlight in this episode. First of all, after “Scott Tenorman Must Die”, this was the first episode written to give Cartman special treatment (a trend which would later be continued in “The Death of Eric Cartman”, and much more recently in “Ginger Cow”).

Second, this is one of those episodes where the creators began cutting all ties to the shows classic era, and in this episode, they did this by killing Mrs. Crabtree, the bus driver who would scream at pretty much everyone. Yes, they did kill off Ms. Choksondik in season 6, but they did it abruptly, and highlighted the events in comic fashion.

In this episode, they didn’t have any soul, effectively proving that they could kill off any character they wanted just like that, which brings us to the next episode.

#3 – The Return of the Chef (season 10, episode 1)

the return of chef

For me, while this was a great episode, it’s also a serious tipping point for the show in general. We all know the story behind “The Return of Chef”: Isaac Hayes quit the show after it began targeting Scientology, which inexplicably happens to be his religion of choice. The creators of South Park got pissed off, and decided to take their revenge by mercilessly killing off Chef as a character.

The big problem is that Chef was one of the best characters in the show’s history, if not the best. By killing him, they’ve severed all the show’s ties with what made it great in the first place. Starting in 2006, South Park as we know it would morph into little more than a hyper-violent cartoon with Tourette syndrome.

Speaking of violence, this episode put the show’s modern trend of gratuitous gore for its own sake. I say this mainly because they didn’t just kill Chef. They got rid of him in the most brutal way possible, to the point that there’s nothing but what is essentially a mutilated corpse.

After that, we’d never see Chef again. Not even Darth Chef comes back. Without Chef, there’s nothing left of the classic South Park, save for whatever original characters survive, and they aren’t doing so well recently.

#4 – Tonsil Trouble (season 12, episode 1)

tonsil trouble

Seasons 10 and 11 were both still good, even in spite of the fact that they’ve lost what made the classic South Park great. However, 2008 is when things really start going downhill, and the twelfth season opened with one of the weakest episodes in years.

I picked “Tonsil Trouble” instead of the “Pandemic” saga because I feel there’s a stronger case against this episode. After all, in my opinion, this was the first episode that was genuinely awful.

Its premise was abominably ludicrous, and I feel like it was designed so that the creators can justifiably ramble on about AIDS and cancer, and that Jimmy Buffet bit felt rather contrived. Honestly, I find myself comparing this episode to “Stanley’s Cup”, which had a similarly contrived and ridiculous premise.

Of course, if this episode on the list, then there’s obviously a reason for it being there. For me, while some of the other season 12 episodes were pretty good, “Tonsil Trouble” is where the show started growing incredibly stale at an alarming rate. All the characters started acting like complete teenagers, and the personalities of the kids have gotten increasingly less believable.

Season 13, for example, was full of episodes that serve only to try and make the show relevant to the current (and crappy) era, armed to the teeth with pop culture references, gimmicky plots based on what were current events at the time, and cracks about trendy celebrities (like Kanye West and The Jonas Brothers), all while the character development suffered.

Of course, the blame for the ongoing decline of the series should be placed squarely on Bill Hader, a former SNL cast member who joined the South Park team in 2008. Since he joined the team, the show became more popular with teenagers, which kind of reflects the immature attitude of some of the newer episodes.

#5 – You’re Getting Old (season 15, episode 7)

you're getting old

When this episode was released, everyone thought that the writers were using it to express their frustration with the show’s continued production. To be fair, I’d be incredibly frustrated too if I had to keep a TV show going for over a decade. However, the creators of South Park quickly dispelled all rumours of early retirement, as they were contractually obligated to keep producing episodes for a few more years.

The episode itself had an incredibly cynical attitude, this time aimed at the show itself. After turning 10, Stan begins to hate everything he used to love, and becomes alienated from his friends.

For me, this episode is symbolic in many ways.

  1. The title is symbolic of that fact that the show is getting old, and is aging horribly by this point.
  2. Stan’s cynicism and frustration is symbolic of both the creators’ frustration with producing the show, and how generally mean-spirited the show has become.
  3. Stan’s increasing alienation with his friends, in my opinion, is symbolic of how the creators of South Park have killed off basically everything we loved about the classic South Park, and may have alienated the show from its original fan base.

The creators of South Park can hide it all they want, and they’ve hidden it well, but I think that, in some way, they’re getting a little tired of having to keep the show alive. In a way, the episode itself describes better than words how hollow that pursuit has become, as would later be seen in the dreadful season 16, and the hit-or-miss season 17.

The creators of South Park are still contractually obligated to keep making episodes until 2016, but I highly doubt that they keep the show going past that point. Given what the show has become, I think it would be best to retire after season 18, 19, or 20. It’s better that than the slow decay that The Simpsons is now suffering, and the newer Simpsons episodes are even worse.

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One thought on “5 episodes that signalled the decline of South Park

  1. This post is basically spot on. I disagree with a few things, though:

    1. I actually thought that “Tonsil Trouble”, “Pandemic,” and “You’re Getting Old” were decent episodes, especially compared to the other ones from their seasons. You may be right that they foreshadowed the direction in which the series would go (or already was going), but they weren’t bad episodes by any stretch. I actually think all five episodes that you referenced here were good, but like you said, they did signal the show’s decline.

    2. What is wrong with keeping Kenny’s voice muffled? You mentioning that you have a problem with that contradicts the entire point of your post. There was no point in changing the way that the show did (most) things, and making Kenny’s voice clear would just be another change that would make the show lose some of the charm that once made it so great.

    3. Trey Parker has said that he hates the old episodes of the show (the first 3 seasons), so he is probably the person who is most to blame for the show’s decline.

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