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SOUTH PARK
From the episode "Fat Butt and Pancake Head"

Sometimes, being offended is the best possible thing for you.

It seems fitting to point that out as we approach the start of what may be the final season of "South Park" on Comedy Central.

The animated series kicks off its new season Wednesday night. This is the final season under the most recent contract signed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who have overseen the groundbreaking show for its previous 14 seasons and 200-plus episodes.

If you've watched all the "South Park" episodes, at some point you've been offended, or found something objectionable or questionable or tasteless.

Either that, or something is really messed up.

This is a show that doesn't just take potshots at pop culture, video gaming and Internet fads. It's taken on multiple social issues. Environmentalism, terrorism, fearmongering, sexual harassment, gender roles, forced tolerance, race relations, and more have been placed in the "South Park" crosshairs.

And religion. Religion is certainly a societal hot button topic, and it's no different with "South Park." The show's takes on the beliefs of Christians (especially Catholics), Mormons, Jews, Muslims and Scientologists have caused outrage, brought down threats, been censored and caused a rift in the time-space continuum.

(OK - that last part was a joke.)

Often, Parker and Stone don't take a position. Rather, they point out the silliness of extremes on either side. So after spending an entire episode, for example, mocking Mormonism, at the conclusion, a Mormon character says, "Maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense ... But I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that." And the audience's sympathy at that point lies with him.

It's a cartoon with four fourth-grade boys (formerly third-grade boys) at its core. But it's also often well-considered satire, and through its history has been some of the most consistently well-written comedy on television. And it has the hardware to prove it, including four Emmy awards four more Emmy

nominations, a Cable Ace award and a Peabody in 2006.

"South Park" has been one of my favorite programs since its debut in August 1997. (In fact, I recently uncovered a stash of close to two dozen VHS tapes packed with "South Park" episodes, hoarded during the pre-DVD days of its early run.)

So in honor of the new season starting, I thought a quick list of my 10 favorite episodes would be easy to compile.

I was horribly wrong.

I took the list of 209 episodes and jotted down the ones I thought might have a shot. I wound up with 44 episodes (two- and three-parters count as one on my list, but not on the 209). When about a quarter of the episodes are so good you think they're great, that's a sign of a quality show.

As I painfully whittled the list down to the final 10, I sadly bade farewell to such fond memories as Fingerbang, the quartet's boy band; the multiple child predator suicides in the Tourette's episode; Timmy's rock band; Butters and his accountabilla-buddy; "Elementary School Musical;" Wing; the Helen Keller musical; Guitar Hero; the skewerings of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, "Family Guy" and Prius owners; the controversial Scientology episode; and Sexual Harassment Panda.

Not to mention the Obama episode that aired two days after the 2008 election and included pieces of the new president's victory speech.

I expected to see a thread among my favorite episodes. Maybe music. (Parker and Stone are amazing musical satirists, and write fantastic songs as well.) Maybe the characters Cartman or Butters, my favorites. Maybe the religious episodes, because the show does a spectacular job skewering the ridiculous everywhere.

But except for the unlikely occurrence that four of the episodes come from season 7, I couldn't find a thread. These are the episodes of which I'm most fond. They make me laugh and think, and are eminently quotable.

And those are all reasons enough.

My 10 favorite "South Park" episodes:

10: "The Ungroundable" (season 12, episode 14; aired Nov. 19, 2008) - Butters and the returning Goth kids (see below) battle vampires as "Twilight" culture takes hold in the school. Features the classic song, "Burn Down Hot Topic."

9. "The Red Badge of Gayness" (3-14, Nov. 24, 1999) - Cartman assumes to role of General Lee and leads drunken Confederate Civil War enactors to victories across the country in order to win a bet. Ken Burns' documentary is thoroughly mocked.

8. "Christian Rock Hard" (7-9, Oct. 29, 2003) - Cartman forms a Christian rock band and becomes a sensation. The other boys protest music downloading by refusing to record. Illegal downloading, Christian music and "a natural sense of rhythm" all take their knocks. Parker and Stone apparently recorded full-length versions of all the Faith + 1 songs included here.

7. "Rainforest Schmainforest" (3-1, April 7, 1999) - Taking on environmentalism, children's show choirs and xenophobia, this was probably the show's most offensively racist episode until almost four years later. (See below.) Cartman's plea for "chicken wings - medium spicy" upon being rescued is priceless, along with the end title cards that support destruction of the rain forest because it's responsible for 3,000 deaths annually and is home to "over 700" cancer-causing "things."

6. "All About Mormons" (7-12, Nov. 19, 2003) - As they also did with Scientology, Mormonism's foundation is explained, and as with the Scientology episode, it's logical child Stan who questions what everyone believes. Even better, the Mormon/Joseph Smith story is told in song.

5. "Raisins" (7-14, Dec. 10, 2003) - The Goth kids teach non-conformity to Stan by making him conform. The boys find Raisins, the "South Park" version of Hooters, and the restaurant's tricks are exposed. Butters falls for a Raisins waitress, and has his heart broken, resulting in one of the most heartful and sincere soliloquies in the show's history.

4. "Good Times With Weapons" (8-1, March 17, 2004) - Possibly the wittiest and most improbable commentary on Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction is wrapped into a tale that features the boys as anime characters and (eventually) Butters as a dog about to be euthanized. Probably the most hilariously demented and fragmented half-hour in the show's history.

3. "Make Love, Not Warcraft" (10-8, Oct. 4, 2006) - Another show that takes the boys into another world, this time the World of Warcraft, whose parent company, Blizzard Entertainment, gladly cooperated for what essentially was a half-hour commercial for the game. The morphing of the boys into computer screen-gazing slobs is priceless, as are Cartman's demands of his mother.

2. "Fat Butt and Pancake Head" (7-5, April 16, 2003) - In the most offensive thing I've seen the show produce, Cartman decorates his hand Senor Wences-style and dubs the character J Lo, who eventually takes the place of the real Jennifer Lopez both as a singer (with such hits as "Taco Burrito" and "Taco Flavored Kisses") and as Ben Affleck's paramour. Racist, troublingly disgusting, and totally hilarious.

1. "Imaginationland" (11-10-11-12, Oct. 17-24-31, 2007) - Terrorists attack our collective imagination. This epic piece, with allusions to everything from "Willy Wonka" to "Saving Private Ryan" to "Deliverance" to "Stargate," has enough twisting subplots to be worthy of being called a movie. (And in fact was released on home video as such.) Parker and Stone even self-refer, bringing back their own evil creations from previous programs, particularly Cartman's Woodland Christmas Critters. Brilliant.

If you're a "South Park" fan at all, it's probably easy for you to come up with your own list of 10. If you're a big fan, you can imagine the difficulty in limiting it to 10. You have the opportunity on our Web site, where a page lists every episode, and allows you to select your favorite 10. Go to herald-review.com/southpark to cast your votes.

Good luck.

 

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