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Continuity: Episode vs. Series/Character

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Continuity: Episode vs. Series/Character

This document is done



This page should help you answer those nagging questions like “Where is Springfield?” and “Why don’t the characters age?”


No, this isn’t the “LEVELS” paper I promised; just something I threw together about continuity on the Simpsons–maybe it will help some people forget about the location of King Toot’s music store, or something.

Continuity is an illusion. It’s an attempt to resolve and align all details of a TV
show; to put them on a linear scale. Continuity is therefore “the art of limitation.”


First of all, let’s quickly run over the concept of continuity. Something happens in episode A; so, nothing in episodes B-Z must interfere or contradict what happened in episode A. Next, something (or many things) happen, or are “revealed” in episode B. According to continuity, now nothing from episodes C-Z must interfere with or contradict any events in this, or any prior episode. Example: It is “revealed” that Burns is 81 in episode 7F02. Now, NOTHING must change, or contradict that fact in future episodes. Continuity is a linear-time based mechanism by which episodes of a show are connected. I will dismiss continuity as important, vital, or needed on The Simpsons.


Conversely, we have the “slice of life” concept which (originally) describ(ed) the Simpsons. Anything that happens from episodes A-Z is independent from anything else that happens. The present is “today”; the past is “yesterday”, and the future is “tomorrow”. The show parallels *our* present. Each episode has a past and a future independent of the other episodes, and thus–each show is equal in importance. This makes it possible for Mr. Burns to be 81 in episode 7F02, 104 in episode 3F14, and “100+” in episode BABF08. It also makes it possible for Springfield to be “near the ocean” in one episode, yet “in America’s heartland” in the next. Bart and Lisa can remain in the same grades in school, and thus retain their character integrity. There are limitless possibilities for a show, when the (more insignificant) details of its universe can be changed each week.


How does it limit a show like The Simpsons? 4F23 “The Principal, and the Pauper” is the perfect example. Principal Skinner turns out to be an impostor named Armen Tamzarian, with a seemy past that has nothing to do with his present personality. Despite the tongue-in-cheek thumb-nosing at continuity near the end, where they declare that “everything will go back to the way it was, and no one will discuss Tamzarian under penalty of torture”, the episode <STILL> destroys the original Skinner.


His “potential” is now gone. We can no longer hope to see any of those ingenius “flashbacks” so often seen on the show, featuring Seymour as a little boy being aggressively “parented” by Agnes. We won’t see flashbacks of Seymour growing up in school, losing his father, etc. In effect, ALL of Seymour’s past is now off-limits for new exploration–thanks to 4F23. I imagined we might see Agnes pregnant with Seymour, punching herself in the stomach (or something slightly less cruel) in her first domineering action against him. Now we know that can’t happen, since Agnes didn’t really “have” Seymour. The only way we can explore Seymour’s past is through the impostor of Tamzarian–unless we ignore continuity.


Skinner’s character is effectively “destroyed”, if we consider continuity. How did Skinner grow up to be such a push-over? How did his life begin to parallel Norman Bates’? We will never know, because we can’t explore a past that would contradict 4F23–unless we ignore continuity. Skinner would be effectively “dead”, or a hollow character unless we ignore continuity because that which makes him Seymour Skinner “isn’t” Seymour as a child. It’s Tamzarian, as a child.


The first signal of doom in The Simpsons series began with 2F16’s “Smithers.” Before this episode, Smithers had huge potential. How far Smithers would go for Mr. Burns–whether it was inventing a cure for cancer, building another “Taj Mahal”, or yes–even attempted murder on someone. The satirical possibilities were endless for Smithers. Yet, here we have established the first time Smithers says “No!” to Mr. Burns. Not coincidentally, it was the first time I actually got upset at the writers. How arrogant! They just destroyed any future storylines based on Smithers’ butt-kissing. How? We now knew just how far Smithers would go. We knew his limit. He’d go as far as supporting Burns’ sun-blocker, but no further.


Damn the writers. This wasn’t the original concept of The Simpsons–to place limitations on characters; this was second-hand “Exec Prods” Oakley and Weinstein coming in and fundamentally changing the show’s concept. Damn the E.P.s.


Ever notice how the funniest characters are the most stereotypical? Even Homer’s not funny now, unless he does something typically out-of-character, or if he exposes a fresh satirical message from society.

Frink never ceases to floor me; Comic Book Guy only slightly less. Why? Because he’s been slightly fleshed out, and less exaggerated lately. Ever since 3F20, Apu has increasingly become the least funny character on the show. He’s degenerated into an “everyman”, ironically because the writers have focused so much–in episodes like 5F04, AABF11, and BABF03–on fleshing Apu out. His distinctiveness, his “Apu-ness”–those exaggerated qualities that made him “Apu”–have been dissolved into a person who could be of any nationality. The plots of AABF11 & BABF03 could have revolved around ANY male, married character on The Simpsons–not just Apu. That’s sad. Ironically, making Apu “less” stereotypical made him less of a character. That’s part of the current show’s problem.


Unless we toss the rather permanent details of 4F23 out the window, we can’t get on with the show. This was a rather *major* fleshing out (if you want to call it that) of Skinner’s character. But, what about things like phone numbers, and people’s ages? I assert that keeping details consistent from episode to episode would lock up the show, too.


Eventually, when every detail in every character is “fleshed out”, then what? When we know everything, down to what color toothbrush Lisa uses, what will be left to “flesh out?” At this point, we’re locked down. We can’t do anything different with the characters, because they are who they’ve been “revealed as” in other episodes. Bart can’t ever eat “Butterscotch” in a new episode (he’s allergic), nor have any new allergies–because Marge “revealed” them all. Now, Homer can’t have anything but one lifelong dream. Mr. Burns must recognize Homer by now–after all, he called Homer by name way back in 7G03. Why does Chief Wiggum call Homer a stranger in AABF19? He sang with Homer and the B-Sharps in 9F21! Fans should be outraged! (Of course, I’m being sarcastic here, with my tongue planted very hard in cheek)


Do you see how continuity limits the show? Every detail in every show, if we kept track, narrows the Simpsons universe further. Eventually, there’d be nothing left to write about–without fresh characters. (My opinion is “The Simpsons” can be saved, without new characters) If we keep continuity number 1, there is much less creativity.


Some details can be serialized, like Sideshow Bob’s repeated jailings. 7G12 begat 8F20 which begat 9F22; then 2F02, 3F08, 4F14, etc… Other events are meant to be permanent, like the Simpsons getting a dog in 7G08 (although the writers originally didn’t really want them to keep SLH after 7G08) or Maude getting killed in BABF10. But, the writers could have also chosen to bring back Sideshow Bob after 7G12 as Krusty’s sidekick. Nothing said they had to keep Bob in jail. The writers just decided to establish this with 8F20’s plot.


When you’ve nailed down, or fleshed out all the major details of a character’s life, you’re stuck. That is, you’re stuck, if you think all
episodes should be serialized with continuity. There’s only so many details of a character that can be “fleshed out”. Creativity suffers, and it would be easier to add new characters or start another show than to pursue the characters further. After all; how many jobs can Homer have? What else is there to talk about with Homer, other than his job, his love of beer, his kids, his appetite, or his crazy philosophies? With each successive episode narrowing down Homer’s (or any other character’s) persona, there’s bound to be repetition, and the ever present “continuity errors”.


With nothing else to flesh out, especially in the immediate family members of Marge, Homer, Lisa, and Bart, what else could happen? Wacky adventures? We can only view the characters on the surface level now, since they’ve all been pretty “fleshed out”. We’ve seen what makes them tick; we’ve seen what makes them all who they are. Can we “flesh them out” again? No; that’s a continuity faux-pas. We contradict ourselves that way. So, we end up following around characters, who we’ve come to “love” in such episodes as 7G07 & 7F19, hating how “hollow” the stories are. And, if we come upon an episode which purports to have “feelings” or “character insights” such as BABF02 or 5F22, we say the show is repeating itself. We say the show felt “superficial”.


Even past Executive Producers Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein showed how little they understood the issue. In episode 4F12 they offer, through Lisa, why “The Simpsons” (metaphored by Itchy & Scratchy) isn’t as good as it once was. It’s that “the characters can’t have the same impact they once had.” I personally feel this is a cop-out; but, it shows that the writers at least understand that by continually fleshing out characters, they become less interesting. What Oakley & Weinstein failed to recognize is that by IGNORING CONTINUITY, they fix the problem. What’s old (the characters) becomes new again, each and every week. There’s a universe of possibilities in a show that’s not tied down to continuity.


To suit the plot, Springfield could be near a river, the ocean, or in the middle of the cornfields. It could be snowing outside, or the town could have palm trees and a beach. The flashback/flashforward possibilities for a character like Bart alone are magnificent. The ironic thing is–before the change in Executive Producers in Season 6–this is how episodes were produced. Anything *was* possible… *Was*…


This was part of the original concept that was somehow lost by a group of writers, led by those like Ian Maxtone-Graham that not only didn’t understand the characters–they didn’t understand the larger concept. It doesn’t help that there have been two changes of Executive Producer since the beginning. It seems the show has just been thrown in someone’s lap in both instances. The nuances of the show were never explained.


Maybe, in some instances, these same writers and E.P.s have kowtowed to strong willed individuals, while meaning well, didn’t have a full understanding of what made the Simpsons work. It wasn’t continual “fleshing out” of characters that made the show work. While some fleshing out is necessary, and even “touching”, the endless possibilities of a satirical work like The Simpsons made it interesting EVERY week. We saw a continually updated view of America, through hidden satire exposed by irony and exaggeration. We recognized the characters and identified with them–not because of emotion, but because we saw their exaggerated faults in ourselves.


Character development first, humor at least second–if not way down the line somewhere. I’ve seen these people using the “Simpsons Geek Code” at the bottom of e-mails and posts. Interestingly, I see a lot of “GIL–” “CLE–“, etc., which indicate that this person disparages a couple of the more stereotypical characters on the show (in this case: Gil, and Cletus). Here are two exaggerated character types, with endless possibilities that are swept under–probably because they’re not “fleshed out” or “human” enough to be liked. Yes, ironically, the characters which can have “the least impact” (from the words in 4F12) are the ones likes the best (like Lisa, Apu, and even Homer). It seems group loves to hate the show, since his approach to the show contributes to its destruction. By loving the most fleshed out characters and disparaging those with the greatest potential, this group, in a sense, wants what it cannot get: endless character “development”. This does not exist anywhere; not even in reality. This approach “uses up” characters; taking them one by one, fleshing them out to the max, and then discarding them. It sucks the life out of characters.


There is a larger concept than continuity in the Simpsons; there is also a concept larger than “character” in the Simpsons–at least the original Simpsons. I’m currently working on a paper which defines five levels on The Simpsons, in which I explain how everything used to work–when the show was near “perfection.”


It’s fun for people to try and explain why Krusty can say “This ain’t makeup!” in one episode, after showing that clearly he *does* wear makeup in an earlier episode. It’s entertaining to try to resolve all these so-called “continuity errors”; but if we become wrapped up in them, we show how little we understand the show. Episodes should be universes unto themselves–enjoyable without the need for the continuous timeline running through them. Heck–the show was created with characters that were never meant to age… how could it go on, unless the shows were done as a “slice of life” or “snapshots of today”?

In two recent showings of a recent episode, the Simpsons were said to live in “Northern Kentucky” AND “Southern Missouri”, respectively. Those who became upset, or confused by these “revelations” (due to past episodes suggesting otherwise) are the ones who don’t understand (or haven’t understood) The Simpsons’ universe heretofore. I hope, with this post, that at least one of these people will now understand.

Continuity is best left to the soap operas, which operate on melodrama and exotic plot twists. Soap characters are introduced, and their lives float by meaninglessly. The Simpsons is much greater than that, because it can shape itself to fit our lives; it still has the power to show us what’s wrong with us, and why it’s funny.

Going overboard with continuity

When “The Principal and the Pauper” aired – it wrecked so much of the Simpsons continuity. Other episodes from Seasons 9 and 10 have gotten similar treatments.

In the episode “Faith Off” had several references to past episodes, which in of itself is not bad, as continuity is not ‘wrecked’. But a large number of these were forced and in our face; specifically the Nerds from “Homer Goes to College”, Lisa’s vegan-ism from “Lisa the Vegatarian”, Fat Tony, and a few others. It wasn’t that they were referenced, but to the extent that it seemed the writers were asking us “Hey, remember these stories? Well, we’ll remind you! Again and again!” This ‘in your face’ approach to make sure that we ‘get’ the joke failed on many grounds in this particular episode, but I’ve been seeing this trend for the other episodes of this season as well.

I point to how seasons 4-7 handled continuity – save for certain episodes (Any SSB one, for example), the continuity was a subtle addition – things that were picked up by the DYN sections of the capsules. One good example is Selma’s last name, which after every marriage has gotten longer, but the old marriages are never explicitly stated.

I wonder if the message on lack of continuity got to the writers, and have tried to mend their ways, but are doing either a poor job of it, unintentially or intentially (and I really hope it’s not the latter). Continuity is a good thing, but there’s right and wrong ways to include this. Good examples exist in the Simpsons as well as King of the Hill and Futurama. Sublty in humor works much better than full assult.

Simpsons as a continuity-free palette?

I like the idea that Simpsons is a continuity-free palette, where basically each episode stands alone. That way we get to appreciate the writing and not worry about the soap opera-like connections between episodes. Those don’t involve writing so much as plot thread management. Just think of the Halloween eps. You could write a hundred episodes where The Simpsons die at the end and for this series that’d be okay. Every episode is basically a chance to start over with a fresh interpretation of the Simpsons world.

I actually dislike the obvious references to previous episodes, like the mounting references to Homer’s misadventures in outer space. It seems to me it’s a sign of lazy writing when they recall an old episode like that. Usually this pushes me out of enjoying the episode. Trying to explain how one episode fits into the continuity of another is just a waste of time that could be spent on something more entertaining. Seinfeld for instance declined when they started using running plotlines instead of coming up with all original ideas for each show. It didn’t bother me at all that we don’t see how Homer gets back to work, but I found the outer space and boxing references last night to be pretty annoying.

When the show makes references like that I feel like it’s trying to make me think of it as realistic. I expect it to satirize that style of TV story writing, not to follow it. They’ve certainly satirized it in the past. Mr. Burns inability to remember his encounters with Homer are a hilarious way of showing how silly it is when shows try to restore the universe to an equilibrium in each episode, while still trying to look totally continuous between episodes. It makes fun of how shows have so much going on but in the end are not allowed to end up showing any progress from it at all. Another cute one was the big head in the basement. It demonstrates how, if a show exercised full continuity, it would accumulate ridiculous developments like barnacles. The same with Marge saying, “you foiled Sideshow Bob on 5 separate occasions,” etc. The most unbelievable thing that ever happened would have to still be accepted in each and every following show. Seeing that head is a reminder of how continuity can lead a show to be not more realistic as we might expect, but more and more ridiculous.

When the show makes reference to previous eps like last night, it seems to think it’s a typical show rather than a satire of the average show. It’s playing straight with its history rather than making fun of it. The flashbacks contain jokes but they themselves are not jokes at all. The fundamentally flawed would-be comic premise of Homer’s Enemy was that all the events of the show actually made sense together. In actuality the episode had nothing to deconstruct, because we already knew the show’s history was a joke, no pun intended. I hope we don’t see more bits like last night where we’re expected to believe the plots between episodes are continuous. It’s overall just boring and conventional, and leads to attempts at humor that are too repetitive. Cast my vote against continuity.


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Thanks to Chad Lehman, Michael Neylon, Eric Sansoni.