After adding Disney+ and HBO Max to my life, I began a journey too long in the making: re-watching both The Simpsons and South Park from the beginning.
It’s amazing how good both shows were in their early years.
As I watched The Simpsons, memories came pouring back. Quotes I had stolen were brought into focus. Each episode was a reminder of just how unique and original each series was when it premiered. Every week and every new offering took the world by storm, upending the status quo and braving a new path.
Unfortunately, when The Simpsons hit Season 8, it also hit a wall
In that season alone, the flip from the occasional bad episode to the very rare good one took place. There was more garbage than quality, and I couldn’t even finish the entire 22-episode run. It just became too annoying; too useless an undertaking. It felt like panning for gold, finding one worthless flake after hours of effort.
I remember watching the original run in real-time, and I think that back then, momentum kept me going until Season 10. I remember severely disliking seasons 8 & 9, but I kept hoping it’d somehow return to its glory. Unfortunately for The Simpsons, once creator Matt Groening found a mistress in Futurama, it was all over for the town of Springfield.
(Futurama, btw, is probably better than The Simpsons overall, if only because its limited run allowed it to finish with more good-than-bad under its belt.)
South Park, by comparison, has actually grown better with time
South Park went from (hilarious) jokes about alien anal probes, to socially relevant (and still hilarious) examinations of the world we live in. Their most recent specials involving the pandemic and QAnon have been nothing short of brilliant.
And therein lies the difference between the two shows; South Park changed with the times, where The Simpsons got stuck on a treadmill. The Simpsons ran out of ideas because their world is insular. The pitch for each episode seemed to become: “What kooky situation can we put the Simpson family in now?” Their fictional well ran dry.
By evolving with the world around it, South Park avoided this fate
South Park became increasingly relevant by taking storylines from real life. Issues such as the Terri Schiavo case gave viewers insight into the topic, while making people laugh hysterically at the same time. Legalized marijuana, holistic medicine, and even climate change—an issue they initially skewered and then backtracked on later—has led to the question, “What will South Park’s take be?” whenever a newsworthy story hits.
The Simpsons also fell victim to having a slight lean to their politics. While there’s nothing wrong with taking a side, it does limit you. Once you plant your flag with a certain tribe, it’s difficult to break away. If you try, your former fans will feel betrayed, while any possible new ones will be skeptical.
South Park has always skewered everything and everyone, and done so mercilessly. This grants South Park freedom. They can mock San Francisco liberals in one episode and Tea Party conservatives in another. Being equal-opportunity offenders gives them opportunities The Simpsons doesn’t have.
Yes, South Park has had a misfire here and there, but it’s generally a one-off episode. They’ve never had an entire bad season, much less 25 of them in a row.
Both shows are still running in 2022, but only one is worth watching
(But hey, go watch Seasons 1-7 of The Simpsons if you get the chance. There are some real diamonds in those years.)