After two seasons of highly entertaining yet clearly unstable programming, South Park hit upon a sort of stride starting with its third season. Parker and Stone realized that the show's then-formula of dick and fart jokes mixed with the occasional jab at pop culture and/or society was getting stale, and over the course of this season they began to morph South Park into something more. That it not only worked but produced one of the strongest seasons of the show is all the more surprising given the fact that the boys wrote a movie around the same time.
You can tell you're in for a ride from the start with the excellent season premiere "Rainforest Schmainforest," a biting attack on environmentalists who don't realize how necessary trees are to keep society moving, as well as their naïve view of the "purity" of wildlife and the jungle. Reeling from George Lucas' stinging betrayal of all that was good in the Star Wars franchise, Parker and Stone craft "Jackovasaurus" into the ultimate hate-letter to Jar-Jar Binks. In it, the titular creature pops up in South Park and the scientific community's initial joy is replaced by increasing annoyance when the Jackovasaur refuses to shut up. It has no real underlying social message, but it's the first of several great episodes devoted to exposing George Lucas' decision to ruin everything good he ever did over the course of the last decade.
Elsewhere, other highlights abound. "Chinpokomon" examines the phenomenon that was "Pokémon" by positing that children were actually manipulated by the Japanese toy companies via subliminal messaging. That said messaging attempted to brainwash children into mounting an attack on Pearl Harbor only makes it funnier. There's also some penis gags (the word "chinpokomon" itself is a play on "chin chin", the Japanese for "penis") to make sure things don't get too serious. "Starvin Marvin in Space" basically takes the original Starvin Marvin episode from Season 1, cuts out all the filler, and adds a hilarious science fiction element that casts Sally Struthers as a Hutt.
But the season's centerpiece is undoubtedly its three episode mini-arc revolving around a meteor shower. For the first time, Parker and Stone kept a sort of continuity, not just within the arc but the show as a whole, that allowed them to still kill and revive Kenny and make other retcons while making callback jokes possible. The highlight of the arc is "Jewbilee," in which Kyle takes Kenny with him to a Jewish summer camp and the boys must ultimately save the other campers from an group of Jewish anti-Semites who seek to revive the evil Persian, Haman. It's nothing but gold, but honestly it's worth it just to see Moses portrayed as the Master Control Program from Tron.
It's still a tad uneven; "Sexual Harassment Panda" was the first episode to air after the full-length (and extremely funny) South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and was written while Trey and Matt were working on that film. Frankly, it shows; everything the episode has to say about our overly litigious society and how some people exploit a very serious crime just to make a quick buck (and therefore make it that much harder for people who have been sexually assaulted or molested to be treated seriously). But other than that one episode, the only weaknesses come from within strong episodes, such as the actual cat orgy of "Cat Orgy." The episode itself is a fun poke at those generic comedies where two characters who hate each other gradually bond when they realize they're not so different after all, but the cat stuff gets old quickly.
Nevertheless, this is by far the most consistent and rewarding of the first three seasons. The first two suffered from weak episodes and a number of lame gags that kept good episodes from true greatness (with the notable exceptions of "Spookyfish" and "Gnomes"), but here only a few bits fall flat. It lacks the darker edge that slipped in around the fifth season, but it's a big step forward from what came before it.
...But it can't compare to the quantum leap that was the show's fourth season. The release of the movie, coupled with declining ratings after the initial South Park mania calmed down (to this day it doesn't regularly pull in the numbers of viewers it got in the frenzy of the first two seasons) led one critic to suggest that South Park's time in the spotlight was coming to a close. In hindsight, it's easy to mock the guy, but I imagine he was just saying what everyone was thinking at the time. Imagine, then, the looks on their faces when Parker and Stone took everything that was good and wonderful in Bigger, Longer & Uncut and somehow put it on TV every week.
The season rockets out of the gate with one of the quintessential "boys just being boys" episodes of the series, in which the gang goes around town collecting baby teeth to bilk the tooth fairy out of enough cash to buy a Sega Dreamcast. Then it morphs into a great commentary on the dumb lies we tell our children (what is the point of Santa and the tooth fairy, anyway?) when Cartman's mother finally tells her son the truth when the scheme nearly bankrupts her. The fact that this is one of the lesser episodes of the season should only tell you what's in store.
"Quintuplets" is about as damning an attack on the Elian Gonzalez debacle as you could hope to find, equally sending up the botched federal operation and the arrogance of many Americans concerning the event. Then we meet a little character named Timmy, a palsy-stricken boy with Tourette's confined to a wheelchair. When you first see him, it's easy to think that Parker and Stone finally lost it. They spent so much time toeing the line of edginess and obscenity and they finally tripped. Yet, by the end of his introductory episode, we see that the boys' insults are no different than their jabs at each other, and that placing the disabled on a pedestal only alienates them more (a theme introduced in "Conjoined Fetus Lady").
This episode is only the first of a slew of episodes this season that prove that all the outrageousness attributed to the show in its early days were child's play. I mean, who would dare to write an episode where Cartman, seeking to hang out with more mature people, winds up joining NAMBLA and dragging all the other little boys in his class along with him, not to mention the fact that it's one of the funniest episodes of the series? And what about the spoof of the boy-band explosion, which inspires the boys to form their very own group, Fingerbang?
Honestly, it's impossible to pick out highlights. "The Wacky Molestation Adventure" takes the strong concept in the undercooked "Sexual Harassment Panda" and expands it into a classic parody of Children of the Corn. "Trapper Keeper" blends The Terminator with 2001 and still has time to take potshots at Rosie O'Donnell, while the two part episode concerning the boys' religious fear after a wrathful priest warns them of the perils of Hell is one of the most vicious (and viciously funny) attacks on religion ever made. Of course, the writers would outdo themselves when they took on Mormons and Scientologists down the road...
The only weak spot of the season is an episode devoted entirely to Pip, the British lad inexplicably hated by everyone. Pip is based on the lead from Dickens' Great Expectations, and Trey and Matt thought it would be fun to reflect that with a modern -- um... retelling of the classic tale. On the plus side, they roped in Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) to narrate it, and the episode is gleefully absurd, but it's pointless and too silly for its own good. Besides that, it's all gold.
Believe it or not, South Park isn't through growing, but this collection of episodes, like The Simpsons' landmark fourth season, took a show that was inching towards greatness and thrust it into classic territory in one fell swoop. Even though it pushes the students into a new grade, introduces new characters and offers character insights (such as Mr. Garrison coming to terms with his sexuality) that won't be as funny if you don't know the backstory, the fourth season is an excellent place to start potential newcomers, as it boasts a substantial number of classic episodes and giving them an idea what the show has in store for them while remaining more accessible than the much darker 5th season.