Tomorrow, EW.com will unveil our list of the 25 greatest animated series ever. We’ll be asking you, beloved readers, to decide which among those choices is the number one TV cartoon ever – a difficult task. To get you in the mood, we asked you to weigh in yesterday on one of the great never-ending conflicts in pop culture: Family Guy or The Simpsons? Some of the responses thoughtfully analyzed the variable nature of comedy: “Family Guy is more uneven,” said Greg Browning, “But when it hits, I belly laugh. Simpsons is consistently chuckle-worthy but I wouldn’t count on it for huge laughs.” Other commenters noted that Simpsons, for all its acclaim, has been in a rather long dry spell; said Glenn, “Simpsons Great Years: 2-7. That’s it, with an occasional good ep since then. Otherwise, completely unwatchable for me.” But there was one rallying cry that swept through the comment boards, starting with Stevie: “This debate is pointless, because South Park is much better than both.”
Chaos! But the Cartman loyalists may have a point. South Park has been on for almost 14 years now, with its 214th episode airing tomorrow night. (That makes the show fifty episodes older than Family Guy.) In a sense, then, South Park is just as much a Grand Old Man of Animation as The Simpsons. And if you ask me, it has also maintained its quality over a significantly longer period than The Simpsons.
But what, exactly, is the “quality” of South Park, and how does it compare to the “quality” of The Simpsons? There are two key differences between the shows which may influence your perspective. First, The Simpsons is a much more expensive production. The show was always at the forefront of TV animation – those early episodes look much better than you remember, I swear – but especially since going HD a couple of years ago, it’s become legitimately impressive eye candy. Then you add in the most highly-paid voice actors in history: Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Hank Azaria, and the other Simpsons cast created a whole town full of memorable speech patterns. (Just listening to the audio of early Simpsons episodes is hilarious.)
South Park couldn’t be more different. With its cut-rate animation style, the show led the charge into purposefully simple animation, with characters whose faces were essentially interchangeable blanks. The show’s animation has become more complex in the last few years – there is something weirdly majestic about the show’s gore-splattered sequences, as in the “Imaginationland” trilogy – but “simplicity” is still the name of the game. That’s also true of the show’s voices – at a certain point, every background character just starts sounding like Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Ah, but that’s the rub: Whereas The Simpsons has always been a show produced by a committee of extremely talented producers, South Park remains largely the work of its original co-creators. And you would be hard-pressed to find more boisterously opinionated writers on TV than Parker and Stone. I still have a soft spot for the earlier seasons of the show, but the real genesis of South Park’s longevity came in November 2001, when the show’s first post-9/11 episode brazenly tweaked the sudden onset of national paranoia. Ten years later, it has become common practice to simply expect that any major news event or controversy will receive the South Park treatment.
And here’s where the cheaper production comes in handy: Whereas an episode of The Simpsons takes over a year from script to screen, South Park can cook up a complete episode quick enough to become part of the national conversation. Which leads to the other main difference between the series: South Park is explicitly a satire, viciously tearing into sacred cows. The Simpsons gets some good digs in (mostly against Fox News), but the show has always been much gentler – it is, first and foremost, a character show. (The Simpsons has also become weirdly obsessed with celebrity voices, a practice South Park has always openly decried.)
Mind you: I don’t think South Park is flat-out better than The Simpsons. The younger show is almost purposefully scattershot: When you take aim at so many targets, you’re bound to miss the mark some of the time. (A whole episode about Whale Wars? Eh.) And there are some people who argue that South Park’s topicality is also a weakness – that, say, a whole episode satirizing Creed won’t make any sense to future generations of children who thankfully will never know that Creed was ever a thing. And that’s true. But the topicality has a sneaky side. There are a number of South Park episodes that look remarkably prescient today. Look at “The Passion of the Jew,” which imagined Mel Gibson as a crazed madman years ahead of schedule. Or consider “Britney’s New Look,” an essential document of the Breakdown Britney era. The episode ends with the implication that Miley Cyrus would soon experience the same miserable life-altering media obsession… a prediction that you could easily extend forward eternally, for every new ingenue who has to grow up at the center of a media firestorm.
I don’t want to ignore South Park’s characters. Cartman remains a great creation, although I have maybe laughed more over the years at the hilariously naive Butters and the eternally affronted Randy. And the show has plenty of room for outright pop culture absurdity – I’m still recovering from laughing so hard at the My Neighbor Totoro/H.P. Lovecraft mash-up parody from last season. But the essential nature of South Park seems to be in its themes: It’s a show with metaphors, a show that tries to mean something. Family Guy and, more and more, The Simpsons are much more classical entertainments: They want to make you laugh, first and foremost.
Which of the three do you prefer, readers? And do you agree that South Park has maintained its quality more consistently than The Simpsons and Family Guy? Or do you agree with the character on South Park who once said, “I know Family Guy’s just joke after joke, but I like that! At least it doesn’t get all preachy and up its own ass with messages, you know?” And be sure to check back on EW.com tomorrow to vote on the Greatest Animated TV Show… ever.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich