Episode 10: No, Things Can’t Change. Ever

Humans are temporal beings. We exist within the realm of time, which is always on going. Hence, nothing is ever static within the grand scheme of the universe as we are constant change in one way or another. That is the law of life, something that serial fiction in some formats avoids following. If anything big threatens or helps to change the very foundation of a person’s or family’s situation, you can be sure it will barely leave a dent by the end of an installment. Someone is sick, they’ll get better soon. Someone wins the lottery, overdue taxes or costly repairs will eat away most of the money. The only exception is of course for season premieres, finales, sweeps weeks, and when recognizable actors become part of the regular cast.

Sitcoms, especially of the animated variety, are big on keeping things as they are no matter what. The quintessential example is that of The Simpsons, on the air for over two decades and baby Maggie still can’t talk. It’s particularly odd considering that Apu’s octoplets have been born and have already said their first words in the span by which Maggie is still an infant. Whether or not time actually passes within The Simpsons chronoverse is something of debate between some of the more diehard fans. There are a lot of hints that narrative continuity exists to some degree, since Homer can recite his accolades and antics at the top of a hat, Poor Grimey and Grimey Jr. still can’t figure out how he has done all of these things in his life. The setting is somewhat self contained in that no one really ages but that doesn’t mean that they are immune to temporal changes from the real world. Something as simple as references to current events, changes in politics, having people up to date with technology, and many other little things are done to keep the show “up with the times”. It’s not just the art style that is noticeable over the years. Sadly, some of the more basic aspects of human nature also make their way into the show one way or another. Most notable and tragic is of course how Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz were retired from the ensemble of multiple peripheral characters after the untimely death of Phil Hartman, the voice actor for both of them. While it was possible to have someone else provide the voice for either of them, Matt Groening and other voice actors preferred to not bring in someone new. While the characters have never really changed and the town of Springfield has maintained itself, even after moving five miles down the road, you’d be blind if you hadn’t noticed that the show is clearly different from what it was years ago.

Actually famous critical theorist Umberto Eco describes such depictions of installments having no actual difference on the overall story as “narrative redundancy.” He explains in the essay “The Myth of Superman” as an explanation for why things never really change in comics. Perhaps the biggest example of this is the issue of death in comics, something worth discussing at length in a future post, and even more so with the case of Kenny in every episode of Southpark during the first seasons. The big reset button keeps things within the basic narrative structure keeps things simple and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Without much complexity you can jump in as a viewer at any moment and enjoy the installment for what it is, without the need of knowing every single detail of every that has happened before. And so I leave you with the wise words of Phillip J. Fry from the episode of Futurama where they remake Single Female Lawyer (I wish there was a YouTube clip of this). Basically, people don’t watch television to see something clever and unexpected. “Clever things make people feel stupid and unexpected things make them feel scared…. TV audiences don’t want anything original. They wanna see the same thing they’ve seen a thousand times before.”

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