Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.
Welcome to the seventh installment of Recurring Episodes. This week, one of the best episodes in the history of the foul-mouthed cartoon kids of South Park is the subject.
The Show: Not too much is left to be said about South Park or its history. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone met in college, developed a couple of animated shorts that got quite a bit of attention, and were given the ability to launch their show on Comedy Central premiering in 1997. It follows four kids in the fictional everytown of South Park, Colorado, and the adventures they get in, at first revolving mostly around scatological humor then progressively tackling more and more political and newsworthy, timely issues with an absurd, often bluntly libertarian bent.
The kids, best friends Stan and Kyle (stand-ins for Parker and the Jewish Stone, respectively), the doomed, inaudibly bundled up Kenny, and “big-boned,” fascist-leaning Cartman, along with a revolving cast of secondary characters, usually end up in the middle of something big, with everyone learning a lesson along the way, like afterschool specials full of swearing, poop jokes, and violent deaths.
Why South Park? As one of the longest-running shows in television, and originally one of the most controversial, South Park is the kind of show everyone has an opinion about. Some fans enjoy its first season, before it got too wrapped up in issues-of-the-week and political commentary. Some laud its libertarian bent, while others find it to be just as self-righteous as the demagogues on all sides of the political spectrum that it lampoons. While it has gotten far less consistent over the years—at this point, it sort of seems like the creators’ hearts aren’t really in it—it’s good for one or two classic episodes a season, and has been throughout its run. The Emmy-winning (for Outstanding Animated Program) “Best Friends Forever,” the show’s brilliant take on the Terry Schiavo story that dominated the news in the mid-2000s, is one of those classics.
The Episode: Like many of the best episodes of South Park, “Best Friends Forever” takes a long, roundabout, absurd way around to its main premise. At first, it seems like it’ll be an episode about the (at-the-time) hyped Sony PSP, as Kenny is the first kid in town to get one, and becomes obsessed with it, while Cartman doesn’t get one, and is deeply envious in the way only Cartman can be. Kenny, really good at the game that comes with the system, called “Heaven and Hell,” is the first kid to reach level 60 of the game. Then, as usual, he dies (his recurring death is a gimmick that dates back to the first episode), this time run over by an ice cream truck.
Or does he?
Kenny ascends to Heaven, where we learn that the PSP was created to find someone who can save the kingdom of Heaven from the invading armies of Hell, led by the recurring character of Satan and his new boyfriend, who resembles Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars movies. Kenny, the best at the game, is “the one.” Basically, in terms any pop culture watcher can understand, Kenny is their “Keanu Reeves.” As he is about to lead the armies of Heaven against the forces of evil, he is sucked back into his body, as he is revived but left in a “permanent vegetative state.”
Kenny’s will leaves all of his possessions to Stan and Kyle, but for the PSP, which goes to Cartman. Cartman cannot collect on the PSP, though, because they learn Kenny is still “alive.” Furthermore, the final page of his will, which was to say what happened if he ever ended up hooked to a machine, brain dead, has gone missing. Cartman can’t get his PSP, Kenny’s soul is stuck in his body, and Heaven is without its Keanu Reeves.
Stan and Kyle want Kenny kept alive, because they don’t want to kill their friend. Cartman wants Kenny dead, so he can get his hands on the PSP. The forces of Satan want him kept alive, and the angels in Heaven need him to die.
If it all sounds completely absurd, it is. It gets even more absurd when Cartman asserts he is the one who should be able to decide whether Kenny lives or dies, because they share halves of a BFF necklace (thus the episode’s title, “Best Friends Forever”). Eventually, the courts get involved, there’s lots of media coverage showing Kenny laying there like a lump, and the politics of both sides of the Terry Schiavo issue are lampooned as BFFs all over the world take Cartman’s side. Finally, everything comes to a head in one of South Park’s patented, both sides are wrong moments, as the final page of the will is found. It reads, if he were ever in a vegetative state, “Please, for the love of God, don’t ever show me in that condition on national television.”
Say what you will about South Park’s blunt, often libertarian opinions, which can often be boiled down to “don’t be an asshole,” but in this case it’s the perfect thing to say about this particular issue. Stan and Kyle learn their lesson, that they were wrong but for the right reasons, and Cartman was right for the wrong reasons. Kenny dies in peace, and commands the angels in Heaven to victory with a golden PSP. His reward for his victory? A golden statue of Keanu Reeves.
It’s there the episode ends, having made a very definitive statement about the media circus surrounding the Terry Schiavo case. They handled the “right-to-die” issue in a way that is actually, surprisingly, but in a heartfelt way, noncontroversial.
They also manage to get some great, offhand laughs along the way. They take potshots at the idea that South Park is a “republican” show, as when the forces of Hell need Kenny to be kept alive, they “do what we always do. Use the republicans.” When the head angel draws up a battle plan on a whiteboard, he can’t stop sniffing the marker he uses. Cartman is all over the episode, always a good sign.
There have been so many South Park episodes it’s hard to pick one that’s the best, but this one might just be it, showing everything great about the show: blunt social commentary, absurd humor, and the ability to poke fun at popular culture without resorting to Family Guy-esque “You theenk theaaat’s beaaddd…” non-sequitors. “Best Friends Forever” may be “the one.”
It may be South Park’s Keanu Reeves.
Odds & Ends: South Park is still running, currently airing episodes of its fifteenth season. It’s not as consistent as it once was, but still good for a laugh every now and again, and episodes like “Best Friends Forever” keep me watching in hopes for another flash of greatness.
Full episodes of the show are available to watch on SouthParkStudios.com. “Best Friends Forever” is right here.
Recurring Episodes will take a hiatus next week and return on Thursday, June 16 with a review of the DVDs of Breaking Bad: The Complete Third Season, which is set for release on June 7.