The Simpsons has just recently ended its twenty-fourth season, and I feel like I’m one of the few people who still watches every new episode. Someone else must be watching it, though, or they wouldn’t keep renewing it. While it does strike me that they’re usually just repeating the same ideas over and over again, I’m sure I’ll keep watching until it finally ends, unless I die before that. It’s a tradition, you know? Anyway, the last episode of the season highlighted some of the problems inherent in characters not aging, as it had Homer and Marge celebrating their tenth anniversary yet again. Not that this is unusual for cartoons; in fact, it’s pretty much the norm, as it is in comics. There have even been live action shows that have tried having a slowed-down timeline, although it’s kind of difficult when the actors themselves are aging. I found this Wikipedia entry on the floating timeline, which gives a lot of examples. Apparently one of the earliest examples of a character who didn’t age in real time was Tarzan, who was originally identified as being born in 1888, but then fought in both World Wars. The Oz series has non-aging characters, but this is explained by L. Frank Baum as a property of a magical fairyland. Comic characters who were supposed to be a certain age but participated in actual historical events have a similar problem, and DC Comics apparently explained some of these issues by having alternate universes where the same or similar characters grew up at different times, something that Crisis on Infinite Earths in the eighties was meant to put a stop to in order to make the continuity less convoluted. Marvel’s Tony Stark was originally said to have fought in Vietnam, then in the Gulf War, then in Afghanistan. Captain America, whose participation in World War II was necessary for his character, was said in 1967 to have been frozen in ice near the end of the war, and later defrosted. I remember an episode of the X-Men cartoon from the late nineties showing a flashback to when Wolverine, who could be much older than he looks due to his healing powers, fought alongside the Captain in WWII.
As far as The Simpsons goes, I recall Matt Groening mentioning in DVD commentaries that he originally didn’t plan to have them interact with historical events at all, but the writers gradually got away from this. “The Way We Was,” a second season episode flashing back to when Homer and Marge first met in high school, was going to just make the characters younger, but it was later decided to just go ahead and set it in the seventies. Since then, it’s been pretty consistent that they were teenagers during the seventies even as this has become increasingly more unrealistic. Homer was aged up slightly from thirty-five to thirty-nine as the series progressed, while his kids remained exactly the same age, but that still doesn’t come anywhere close to working out mathematically. Neither does Principal Skinner’s being in his early forties and having fought in Vietnam. Even Mr. Burns, whose old age often allows him to avoid such problems, was shown in this season as being a kid in the early days of comic books, which would presumably have been the thirties. One particularly bad episode from the nineteenth season, “That 90s Show,” showed Homer and Marge living in the nineties before their kids were born, but this seems to have been largely ignored (fortunately). My general thought is that I don’t mind so much when they mess around with the years in which things took place (it’s pretty much unavoidable now), as long as the characters are still pretty consistent ages relative to each other. One episode that I feel messed with that was “The Blunder Years,” the one where Homer remembers seeing a dead body at the age of twelve, since Smithers was shown as being a baby at that point. Earlier episodes had established that Smithers was somewhat older than Homer.
Futurama seems to be taking an even more confusing take on the issue by having some characters age but not others. Professor Farnsworth turns 160 in “A Clone of My Own,” and mentions entering his eighteenth decade in “The Prisoner of Benda,” so he’s presumably aging in real time.
On the other hand, his clone Cubert hasn’t aged at all (or, at most, has aged very little) since his introduction. It’s a little harder to tell with the other characters. It was revealed that the Professor kept Amy Wong as an intern much longer than usual, explaining how she could have been in that role for so many years. Fry and Leela were about twenty-five when the show started, and I suppose they could be in their late thirties now, although you’d think they’d look a little bit older. Not that this will really matter if the show stays cancelled after this season, mind you. I’ve seen a lot of people comment on how Futurama has gone downhill, but I’d kind of rather see it live on and The Simpsons end. My opinion on this matter is subject to change, however, and it’s not like it matters anyway.