The blog We Professional Liars has a great post on how The Simpsons and South Park deal with the progression of time within the respective universe of each show. The point is that The Simpsons remains stuck in 1990 whereas South Park ignores years and simply has the show take place ‘now’.
The post raises a good question that is often ignored in western animated TV shows; should the universe show the progression of time? Futurama is the only example that I can readily recall that actually progresses the year of the show (starting in 3000) but the characters and universe do not. Fry will always be a delivery boy, etc.
Should TV shows progress their universes? I think they should.
To explain myself: progressing shows creates an easy comparison for the viewer. We are aging and it is weird to see something that does not age. Live-action TV shows cannot avoid this and simply try to avert attention to it as much as possible; hence the kids in Saved by the Bell seemed to be in high school forever. In contrast, animated TV shows don’t have that problem. Bart and Lisa Simpson were 10 and 8 when the show debuted twenty three years ago and they still are today.
As to why I think character should age, it is simply a matter of story and content. By allowing characters to age. you can continually progress the kinds of plots that you can tackle. Think of Saved by the Bell; the themes gradually became more mature as the characters and actors aged. The doesn’t really happen in animated shows beyond the odd “crystal ball” episode.
In the case of the Simpsons, Bart and Lisa could have aged well into their teens by now, which could have allowed the show to progress plots into uncharted and more complex territory than it has had to contend with over the last 13 seasons or so. For example having Bart kicked out of school over and over again is one thing, but it’s always been the same school with the same principal. Imagine how things would have worked had it been a different school each time? Getting kicked out of secondary or high school presents a rather different set of challenges than the elementary school would.
Or how about love? Yes that old chestnut. The show has dealt with it a number of times (key examples include Bart and Laura Powers and Lisa and Nelson) but there isone episode that had a peek inside Lisa’s brain that shows her libido locked up, where it is informed that it wouldn’t get out until her teenage years. Just imagine what fun could have been had with that!
I don’t advocate the show advancing year for year just like us, but it would be nice to say that over 20+ years, the show has moved from being a relatively young family to being a relatively mature one. A nice series send-off could have been a college graduation or similar.
Would such practices have made the series better? That is uncertain, but they could have helped the series stay fresher than it currently is. If the audience is growing up and gradually losing interest, then that is a problem. OK, the Simpsons isn’t a kids show; it appeals to all ages, but that does not mean that the teenagers watching in the 90s are watching now. However kids in the 90s that saw the characters age roughly alongside them might be more inclined to retain interest.
The key point of all this is that the show’s rating would not be harmed provided it avoided descending into cliche territory and appealing only to that demographic. With the broad appeal of the golden era episodes, it’s safe to say that that would probably have not been a problem.
In addition, every show has a finite lifespan, no scripted show can go on forever. You can make them last, but eventually they will lose favour and be put out to pasture. The question is: do you ride the wave, or do you try to make a really great show all the way to the end. Most shows do the former, the latter is the road less travelled.