Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I’ve Been Wearing This Same Red Dress Forever!

A while back, I learned about the term floating timeline, which is a handy way for people with too much time on their hands to make sense of the screwy histories of long-running fictional universes. Maybe the best use of a floating timeline is the The Simpsons, where characters don’t age but still progress through time. (If you want to get technical about it — and there’s a certain type of personality who does and who also comments on message boards — when the show first started in 1989, fourth-grader Bart would have been born in 1979. Today, Bart would have been born in 2001.) But the show has still imposed permanent or longstanding changes on a some characters. I thought about it for a while and I think I’ve come up with near all of them. It’s a weird list, because it’s has hardly a few characters, especially the number of the show’s cast of recurring ones. I mean, Lisa gets two big “changes” but Homer, Marge and Bart get none?

Anyway, here permanent character changes on The Simpsons, as far as I could recall:
  • Lisa Simpson — Became Buddhist and a vegetarian.
  • Mona Simpson (Homer’s mom) — Died and stayed dead.
  • Patty — Came out as a lesbian.
  • Selma — Her marriages don’t seem to be forgotten when a given “Selma” episode ends.
  • Mr. Burns — Hasn’t forgotten that Maggie shot him.
  • Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure — Both vanished after the death of Phil Hartman and haven’t returned.
  • Maude Flanders — Died and stayed dead.
  • Ned Flanders — Became less of a Mr. Nice Guy after the hurricane episode, and after Maude’s death he’s dealt with grief and the effort to date again. He’s even got a new love interest who’s showed up more than once.
  • Bernice Hibbert — Was revealed as an alcoholic in the Prohibition episode (more as a joke than anything else) and then subsequently goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
  • Bleeding Gums Murphy — Died and stayed dead.
  • Apu — Married Manjula and lived in wedded bliss for a period, until Manjula gave birth to octuplets, at which point he became miserable. He then had an affair, making Manjula resent him more. So now he’s just constantly distraught.
  • Manjula — Changed from being happy and naive to fairly bitter about life after Apu had an affair.
  • Apu’s octuplets — Were born and grew to toddlerhood — more or less around Maggie’s age, then stopped growing.
  • Sideshow Bob — Slowly gained an extended family (his brother Cecil, his father, his mother, his Italian wife, and his son Gino), all of whom now help in his evil plots.
  • Smithers — his being gay became less and less of a joke and more of an actual character trait.
  • Snake — Gained a sort of backstory with Gloria, a recurring love interest voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
And then there are a few characters who underwent longterm changes that were eventually undone, in one way or another:
  • Barney Gumbel — got sober and stayed that way for a few seasons before falling off the wagon again.
  • Edna Krabappel — Dated Principal Skinner for a few seasons, only to break up and then alternate between having casual sex and making snitty remarks about each other.
  • Lunchlady Doris — Went silent after the death of the woman who voiced her, Doris Grau, but remained as a background character. Then, about ten years later, she started speaking again, with Tress MacNeille providing the voice. Compared to how the show treated Phil Hartman’s characters, I feel like this might be in bad taste.
  • Dr. Marvin Monroe — Died (there’s a Marvin Monroe Memorial Hospital and even a tombstone) but then later shows up again, explaining that he was just “very sick.” And then the show doesn’t really do anything with him again.
  • Dr. Nick Riviera — Kind of similarly to Dr. Marvin Monroe, Dr. Nick died at the end of The Simpsons Movie, but weirdly came back to life without any explanation.
  • Principal Skinner — He was revealed to actually be Armin Tamzarian, an impostor, but it hasn’t been mentioned since, save for a one-off joke a few seasons later.
  • Kirk and Luann Van Houten — Divorced for a few reasons but reunited.
  • Fat Tony — Died, only to be replaced by his almost dental cousin, Fit Tony, who promptly became fat and started getting called Fat Tony. So essentially it’s like he never actually died.
In any case, it’s interesting to see what “sticks” on a show that has both a sense of continuity and a tendency to hit the reset button at the end of a given episode or sometimes even at an act break.

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