To date, there have been 639 episodes of The Simpsons. That sounds like a hell of a lot of TV to keep track of: character arcs, relationships, continuity, on-going narratives, and that’s before you even get into timelines and chronology. Luckily, for the most part, The Simpsons ignores all of those things – most episodes end up right back where they started, characters learn nothing and experiences are quickly forgotten, all in order to create a light, fun, uncomplicated 22-minute comedy. However, not everything that happens on The Simpsons is disposable: some story elements stay put. So what’s the deal? Is there an official Simpsons canon or not?
The short, and disappointingly flaky answer is: yes, sort of, but not really. The creators of The Simpsons coined the phrase “flexible reality” to describe the events that transpire on the show – in other words, anything that happens can either stay happened or can be jettisoned from the show’s continuity, depending on how the writers are feeling at any given moment. In other words: any time you notice something on The Simpsons that doesn’t make sense… a wizard did it.
The Simpsons has aged amazingly well, given how long it’s been airing. The characters never age — we’ve had approximately 19 Christmas episodes, but Bart and Lisa are still aged 10 and 8 — and because the show doesn’t embed itself in pop culture plotlines or time-sensitive jokes (naming no names, Family Guy), it’s not full of things that can date it or mess with continuity. Example: one of the most striking changes to the show was when the Simpsons finally upgraded the TV in their opening credits to a flat-screen.
That said, you can’t make over 600 episodes of a show without having some of it stick. Throughout the entire arrested development of the show, The Simpsons has changed, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
YOU CAN’T CHANGE YOUR FAMILY
Generally, the events that enter official Simpsons canon mostly revolve around family. We didn’t know Homer had a half-brother, Herb, until Season 2 episode ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and he returned a season later to re-make his fortune (Danny Devito also voiced Homer’s brother in a Season 24 episode, ‘The Changing Of The Guardian,’ for a throwaway gag, in which he reveals he’s poor again). We first meet Homer’s mother, Mona, in Season 7, and guest star Glenn Close made numerous guest appearances until the character’s death in Season 19. When The Simpsons introduces a family member, they stick around (although we haven’t heard much lately from Stanley, Homer’s cousin who shoots birds at the airport).
Even outside of the family Simpson, major character developments have been known to take root. Patty, for example, came out as gay in Season 16 and stayed out, while Selma’s quest for a baby saw her adopt a Chinese orphan, also in Season 16, although strangely, little Ling seems to be ageing at a far more rapid rate than poor old Maggie.
Another example: Lisa started off as a meat-eater like the rest of the family until Paul and Linda McCartney convinced her to go veggie (which is as good a reason as any), and it’s since become a core tenet of her personality. She also became a Buddhist, but only after Richard Gere twisted her arm. Who knows what further character developments major celebrities will tease out of Lisa in the future?
And then there’s Barney, the incorrigible drunk, who actually stayed sober for a few seasons at the turn of the millennium, although we later find out he replaced his alcoholism with an addiction to coffee, and he reveals that rehab has “cured” him on five separate occasions. Nonetheless, Barney’s character was fundamentally altered and stayed altered over episodes and entire seasons, proving that The Simpsons’ writers can change the canon when they want to.
Occasionally the show will be blessed not once but twice by guest stars; or in Sideshow Bob’s case, dozens of times. After Kesley Grammer, Eric Idle’s documentarian Declan Desmond is the most popular returning cameo with no less than five appearances; Anne Hathaway, who played Bart’s girlfriend Jenny, came back for a second episode; Beverly D’Angelo first voiced country singer Lurleen Lumpkin in 1992’s ‘Colonel Homer’ and didn’t reprise the role for another 16 years. Seems there are only so many celebrities to go around.
Lesser characters usually stick around Springfield too, although the ones voiced by celebrities usually don’t say much when they show their faces: in various latter episodes, you can still see minor characters like Lisa’s friend Allison (formerly voiced by Winona Ryder) and Bart’s temptress Jessica (originally voiced by Meryl Streep) in crowd scenes.
Really though, the only way to truly affect the show’s canon is for a character to die. Bleeding Gums Murphy, the sax genius voiced by James Earl Jones, died in the sixth episode of Season 1, and despite an apparent lookalike in the episode where Homer joins a cult, and a confusing “Tupac-at-Coachella-style” hologram in Season 24, he’s stayed very much dead. The same goes for Maude Flanders: the showrunners made a big deal out of the fact one of the cast was going to die and stay that way, and widowed Ned subsequently romanced and married Bart’s teacher, Edna Krabapple.
The exception is Dr Marvin Monroe, who we were told passed in the 138th Episode Spectacular — hell, we even saw his gravestone — but he later turned up in episode 323, alive and well, with the explanation that he’d been “very sick”. A definite ‘wizard did it’ moment.
Sometimes, the writers on The Simpsons put major events into motion that can’t help but affect canon – but the fact that said events are so cataclysmic is often written off as a gag. For example, the entire town of Springfield is moved five miles down the road in the Season 9 episode ‘Trash of the Titans’, but it’s never mentioned again. (The location of Springfield in America is also a running gag, in that it’s never adequately explained exactly where in the United States it’s located).
Occasionally, the fates of certain characters are played for laughs in order to retain the status quo. Lisa’s cat Snowball II is actually the fifth cat called Snowball she’s had, but we learn she kept the dish of the second one to make the continuity more tolerable. Mafia boss Fat Tony is killed in Season 22 episode ‘Donnie Fatso’ but is replaced, immediately, by his soon-to-be obese twin brother, Fit Tony.
And then there was Season 9 episode ‘The Principal and the Pauper’ — the first time Simpsons canon was ever called into question. The episode revealed that Principal Seymour Skinner was actually an imposter called Armin Tamzarian, who’d assumed the role of his ex-sergeant upon returning home from Vietnam. Although the show ended on a gag, which saw Judge Snyder forbid anyone from mentioning the incident ever again “under penalty of torture,” it still rankled fans and was written off as an “experiment” by the writers. But greater sins were yet to be committed…
The Simpsons never really has to worry about chronology, because outside of a few flashbacks here and there, it’s not set in any particular year; or, rather, it’s always set in whatever year it was broadcast in, if that doesn’t make you go too cross-eyed. The show came completely unstuck, however, in Season 19 episode ‘That ’90s Show’, which altered a fundamental element of the show and the character’s relationships, namely that Homer and Marge’s relationship now apparently took place during the grunge scene of the ’90s, as opposed to the late ’70s disco era as detailed in the show’s first few seasons.
As previously mentioned, the show doesn’t really devote much energy to explaining a timeframe, or why none of the characters age, but in retconning Homer and Marge’s love story and changing the era by 20 years (not to mention countless musical scenes), fans argued the show had been irreparably ruined, and that the show’s canon had been shot to pieces.
It’s regularly voted as one of the worst episodes in the show’s long history, which is perhaps why subsequent scenes of young Homer and Marge have been retconned back to the original ’70s setting.
EMBRACE THE MAGIC XYLOPHONE
This is exactly why the show takes place in “flexible reality” — a place of no particular time or space, which basically allows the writers to do whatever they want without consequence.
Flexible reality is how the Simpsons’ family home can seemingly grow extra windows at random and change its layout on a weekly basis; it’s why Springfield itself is an ever-shifting jigsaw puzzle, where one day Moe’s Tavern might be next to the church, then one day it’s down the road from Homer’s house; it’s why some incidental plot objects stick around, like Blinky the fish or the giant Aztec head Xtapolapocetl that’s frequently seen gathering dust in the house’s basement, but it’s rarely mentioned that Homer won a Grammy, went into space and had a fist-fight with former President George H.W. Bush.
If canon and continuity are still an issue for you, try to picture yourself as the show’s resident nerdlinger Doug, calling out the makers of Itchy & Scratchy for an innocent mistake regarding one of Scratchy’s ribs playing an incorrect xylophone tone. Are we to believe that it was some kind of *snort* magic xylophone?
The simple fact is, a show as sprawling as The Simpsons cannot ever hope to abide by a set of strict rules; and it’s actually far funnier when it breaks them. It’s as Lisa says, when a Homer doppelgänger strolls casually past their living room window one afternoon: “Cartoons don’t have to be 100% realistic.”