Sliding timelines in cartoons: “The Simpsons”

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Continuing from the previous articles on sliding timelines in cartoons, I next come to an interesting example, “The Simpsons.” Interesting because:

  1. Despite being a sitcom (and thus adhering to sitcoms’ episodic nature and minimal continuity, i.e. everything’s wrapped up in 30 minutes and events rarely or never influence the next episode, thus making it easier to air sitcoms in any order in syndication), it does for whatever reason mostly observe this timeline trope for its various flashback episodes; and
  2. It’s a rare example in television. This aspect (and the unfamiliarity/rarity of this trope to the average TV viewer who isn’t a comic fan) might explain the reaction I’ve seen online to one particular episode (more on that below).

Since nearly all of the episodes take place in the present—no matter how long the show’s been on or when the episode was made—and since the characters (being cartoons) generally don’t age, most of the episodes can be ignored in this discussion. We can just assume that Homer and the family have had a “very busy” past year or two (Maggie’s lifetime).

Also not relevant here are flashbacks to certain decades-ago historical events: World War II for Grandpa and Mr. Burns and Vietnam for Skinner. Just like the Justice Society (until 2011 anyway), Grandpa’s permanently tied to the “Big One” no matter how old he gets…and being old is the main source of his character’s humor.

“The Way We Was”

The first flashback episode came in what’s one of the show’s best episodes, season two’s “The Way We Was.” There, we learned that Homer and Marge first met in high school in 1974. Keeping with Marge’s age quoted in the first season as being 34, and this episode airing early in 1991, this episode suggests that Homer and Marge were about 34-35, confirmed for Homer to be 36 in later early episodes; Homer’s age was upped to 38 in season six, with Marge’s age soon also upped to 38 to match.

Later seasons upped Homer to 39 (apparently leaving Marge at 38). For the purposes of this post, I’ll go with Homer and Marge being 38, the most-often-cited age I’ve seen in the show.

“I Married Marge”

The next flashback came in season three’s “I Married Marge,” which aired in late 1991. Here, we see a flashback to 1980 (or about “10 years ago”) where Marge and Homer, out of high school for some time, finally get married after they conceive Bart. Later, we see Homer get his job at the power plant, and Bart’s birth.

Homer and Marge in 1980
Homer, Marge, and Dr. Hibbert in “I Married Marge.”

Other flashbacks

Other flashback (and flash-forward) episodes of note:

  • 1992’s “Lisa’s First Word,” where a flashback to Lisa’s birth in 1984 (“8 years ago”) and the family moving into Evergreen Terrace is seen, followed by Lisa saying her first word about a year later. Bart here is 2 to 3 years old.
  • 1992’s “Itchy and Scratchy: the Movie” flash-forwards at the end to “40 years in the future”, but no specific year is stated. A flashback to the first moon landing (in July 1969) is also shown, with Homer seen as a teenager.
  • 1993’s “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” where we learn in 1985 (or “about 8 years ago”), Homer, Barney, Apu and Principal Skinner had a successful barbershop quartet. The kids are shown here as about the same ages as at the end of “Lisa’s First Word” (despite Lisa being rather verbose… then again, she’s one of the smartest characters in the show).
  • 1993’s “The Front” sees Homer and Marge attend their high school class reunion, where they’re stated to be “class of 1974″ graduates.
  • 1995’s “And Maggie Makes Three” flashes back to Maggie’s birth (no specific year stated, just the episode taking place “a year or two ago”).
  • Probably the first episode that indicates how long the show had been on (which gets amplified in latter seasons’ flashbacks as the show runs even longer) is 1997’s “Lisa’s Sax,” which was one of a batch of a few episodes made in 1995, but took several years to get on the air. Here, the flashback-du-jour is about how Lisa got her saxophone at age 3, as well as Bart’s first day of school at age 5, all in…1990, the date the show debuted, which Homer lampshades at one point.
  • 1995’s “Mother Simpson” explains why Homer’s mother is unseen in the show—she left during Homer’s childhood to go on the lam from Mr. Burns, after falling into a counterculture/protest group in the late 60s that destroyed a biological weapons lab of his. This was stated to be “27 years ago”; Homer accordingly is about 11 years old.
  • Also in 1995 was another of the series’ best-regarded episodes, “Lisa’s Wedding.” In a flash-forward to the oh-so-distant year 2010(!), 23-year-old Lisa is a college student who almost marries a British classmate.
  • An episode from 1998 flashes back to Homer’s mother taking Grandpa and a young Homer to Woodstock in 1969 (in real life, Woodstock took place several weeks after the moon landing). By this point, enough (real-world) time had passed that Homer was now a young grade-schooler in 1969, and not a teenager (per the previous-mentioned moon landing flashback).

“That 90’s Show”

Around 2000 I gave up on watching the series, but I’m told that there were a few more flashbacks, including a 2000 episode where Krusty meets his daughter (who’s the same age as Bart, and was born during the first Gulf War), and one that seems to have made a bunch of those still watching the show ticked off: 2008’s “That 90’s Show”, which flashes back to a still-dating young Homer and Marge; here, Marge is shown attending Springfield University, while Homer starts a grunge rock group.

By this point, enough (real-world) time had passed that Homer and Marge’s young adulthoods had been moved up to the early-to-mid-90s. This apparently irritated a lot of fans, claiming it was “wrecking what was established about the show”, citing the episodes with Marge and Homer in high school that were set in the 70s as “proof.”

Apparently, the above-cited flashback episodes, which already showed events in the characters’ past moving forward to take place in the 90s (“Lisa’s Sax”, “And Maggie Makes Three”, the episode with Krusty’s daughter), and continuing to slide forward as the years roll on, didn’t bother said fans for some reason (given those episodes have been much praised). Perhaps this episode just wasn’t funny, regardless of the time-era setting?

Conclusion

As I’ve noted previously, the idea of a sliding-timeline isn’t familiar outside of comics circles, and thus seeing it used in a more popular mass medium (like television) looks odd to the average person. Especially on a place like a TV sitcom, which being a sitcom/television doesn’t have the patience, concern about or room to explain such things that (as far as Hollywood writers are concerned) “only nerdy losers on the Internet” care about.

Going by this trope, as of 2015, Homer and Marge would’ve been born in or around 1977 (age 38), Bart in 2005 (age 10), Lisa in 2007 (age 8), and Maggie in 2013 or 2014 (age 1). Given the show’s reliance on pop culture references (especially in newer episodes), and how much the show’s writers love flashback episodes (which let them take advantage of making fun of older pop culture milestones), I don’t see the writers giving up on this timeline trope anytime soon, especially since the series is apparently deemed uncancelable by this point.

Thus, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future, an episode was made about Homer as a young unmarried man somehow involved in the *second* Gulf War, inspiring Steve Jobs to come up with the iPod, and/or somehow inspiring Lady Gaga to start her career!

(Updated 9/2/16)


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