Summer is here, the perfect time to catch up with a few of those shows everyone is always saying you should watch. But there are so many! How can you decide which to try? You need to find the gateway episode, one you can watch without any background knowledge and which will give you a real sense of the show—and whether you’ll like it.
Because my parents wouldn’t let me watch anything more crass than Frasier for much of my adolescence, I came to South Park rather late. And as someone who can never just jump into the middle of a series, the idea of tackling Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 16-season epic felt like attempting to watch all 162 regular season baseball games the week before the playoffs start.
But South Park is actually extremely accessible for new viewers, since it’s entirely episodic, with almost nothing carrying over from episode to episode (most notably, the repeated deaths of Kenny). This means you can really start watching just about anywhere. But that doesn’t mean you should start just anywhere—particularly if you’re not sure whether you’re going to like the series at all, and want to figure that out quickly. In that case, you need to be choosy.
I tried to be when I first started, navigating my way through the South Park oeuvre by picking from dozens of critics’ “top episodes” lists. (All the episodes are available free at SouthParkStudios.com.) But take no heed of those lists, South Park virgins. The first episode you need to watch is Season 8’s “Douche and Turd,” which aired shortly before the 2004 election. It is the epitome of everything great about the show.
Probably the biggest hurdle South Park faces with adult audiences is the crassness of much of its humor—which, as you may have guessed from the title, is on full and glorious display in “Douche and Turd.” But don’t let that overshadow the sophistication of the series’ satire. In this episode, the subject of that satire is voting, and the story perfectly encapsulates the show’s libertarian politics.
That’s not the only thing that makes the episode so wonderfully representative. There’s the spoofing of a celebrity (in this case, Puff Daddy—so yes, the episode is old, but it holds up) who inexplicably visits the small town of South Park. There’s the extreme cartoon violence. There’s the live-action footage, always jarring in the show’s cartoon universe. There’s the mocking of hypocrisy in a big national organization (in this case, PETA). And, finally, there’s the music. No truly great South Park episode is complete without a hilarious original song, and in this episode, we get two.
Like most South Park episodes, “Douche and Turd” opens with a comically contrived premise—in this case, PETA members bursting into a pep rally and throwing buckets of animal blood on elementary school girls to protest the use of Mooey the Cow as the school mascot. When the students have to nominate a replacement, their teacher suggests less offensive names, like “Redskins” and “Indians,” which are OK since “PETA doesn’t care about people.”
This prompts Kyle and Cartman to come up with their own suggestions: a “giant douche” and “turd sandwich,” which Parker and Stone clearly intend to represent George W. Bush and John Kerry. (If the image of a massive turd sandwich dancing to “Who Let the Dogs Out” doesn’t strike you as hilarious, you can probably stop reading here; this is not the show for you.) Stan declares his refusal to vote for either mascot—and so Puff Daddy hunts him down. It turns out that the rapper’s “Vote or Die” message was intended literally.
Throughout, characters argue over the douche and turd in ways that echo the inane conversations you probably heard between Democrats and Republicans last October. “You don’t understand the issues!” “Are you calling me ignorant?!” The episode mocks other infuriating election-year behaviors as well, with staunch advocates of each candidate constantly berating their friends and family on the importance of voting—but only if it’s for their guy. The episode culminates with a debate between an actual giant douche and turd sandwich, moderated by Jim Lehrer.
In the end, Stan returns to South Park, resigned to the fact that he might as well vote, a decision that provokes a schmucky patriotic song. “Let’s get out and vote/ Let’s make our voices heard/ We’ve been given the right to choose between a douche and a turd.” Then Stan learns that his vote for turd sandwich didn’t even matter, as it barely narrows the massive margin of victory for the giant douche.
“Douche and Turd” doesn’t just send up fatuous celebrity activism and PETA, both fairly easy targets. It critiques the very idea than an individual vote can decide an election. Parker and Stone are more than happy to direct their ire at basic tenets of American democracy—one of the many things that makes their show great.