This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
The animated format of The Simpsons has afforded the writers and producers the freedom to go on and on for years – it has overtaken Gunsmoke as the longest-running prime time show ever and this year, it will surpass its overall episode count of 635 too. Over the course of almost three decades on air, the show has kept to a floating timeline, in which the kids stay the same age and, short of a few supporting characters being retired or killed off, nothing really changes.
The show’s longevity is hardly its greatest quality as far as the fans are concerned, with the common consensus being that it peaked twenty years ago, when it was being written by actual geniuses, but has had peaks and troughs since then. But in 29 seasons, they’ve done almost everything, hence the howling and gnashing of teeth at a not-very-good Season 19 episode, That 90s Show, which retconned the Simpsons’ existing backstory for a flashback episode where Homer invents grunge in the 1990s, a point in history at which the series was supposed to be at its heyday.
But in the main, through Homer’s hundreds of jobs, Bart’s numerous end of year exams and Maggie’s endless infancy, the show has satirised new developments in pop culture and society without moving forward. Every once in a while though, we do get a flash-forward episode that drops in on a futuristic Springfield.
Like That 90s Show or a Terminator sequel, each future reboot usually has little bearing on the next one in terms of continuity. For instance, Season 4’s The Itchy & Scratchy Show, which memorably hinged upon Bart’s slim chances of becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court if Homer didn’t make a punishment stick, but the show hasn’t stuck to that destiny so rigidly. So, with lots of timey-wimey disparities and a few running gags, here’s a look at the various future timelines that The Simpsons has glimpsed so far.
Lisa’s Wedding (Season 6)
The first and best of these episodes won the show an Emmy award for Best Outstanding Animated Program in 1995. It still stands up with the most quotable episodes of the show’s heyday and it’s probably the only one on this list that everyone reading has definitely seen. Written by Parks & Recreation‘s Greg Daniels, Lisa’s Wedding addresses the tension between Lisa and her family in the far-off year 2010, through a dizzying but doomed romance with a British university student.
At a fortune telling booth at a renaissance fair, Lisa hears the story of how she’ll fall madly in love with Hugh Parkfield, (voiced by guest star Mandy Patinkin) only to hit a brick wall when he meets her family. The upper-class Hugh is put off by the family’s uncouth ways and looks sick to his stomach when a naïve Homer invites him to join in the Simpsons tradition of wearing spectacularly tacky pig cufflinks. In the end, Lisa calls off the wedding and her younger self goes back to the renaissance fair with a renewed appreciation for her dad. Despite its flights of futuristic fantasy, it’s still about familial love rather than romantic love.
The touchstone references for the future here are Star Trek and The Jetsons, borrowing liberally from the designs and sound effect library of each. Technologically speaking, Marge struggles to FaceTime on her picture phone, robots are commonplace but haven’t yet mastered empathy without self-destructing, and Smithers dotes on his cryogenically frozen boss while Professor Frink searches for “the cure to 17 stab wounds in the back.” Finally, in historical terms, we learn that Britain saved America’s arse in World War III – well, someone’s going to have to do it.
Bart To The Future (Season 11)
Although Bart is the one who gets a vision of things to come this time around, Bart To The Future also shows a good future for Lisa. She introduces herself as “America’s first straight female President,” having apparently averted Lisa On Ice‘s prophecy of banishment to the peninsula of Monster Island for flunking gym. Meanwhile, Bart is in a crappy covers band with Ralph, mooching for money off Homer and Flanders (whose eyes fell out a decade after his fancy laser eye surgery) and makes a visit to the White House to try and launch his music career off of his sister’s success.
The episode does have a few funny moments, but is marred considerably by its stereotypes, which are lazy even by Simpsons standards – there’s a lot of dodgy accent work in this one, not to mention the framing device of the Native American mystic running a reservation casino. In 2003, counter to the Emmy-winning success of the first episode, writers for Entertainment Weekly said “smell you later” (the customary goodbye) to Bart To The Future and named it Worst. Episode. Ever.
That said, it came up in the news again due to a throwaway joke about Lisa’s administration inheriting “quite a budget crunch from President Trump”, who apparently invested in the nation’s children and created a bunch of super-criminals who don’t need to sleep.
“It was consistent with the vision of America going insane,” writer Dan Greaney told The Hollywood Reporter after the 2016 election. “What we needed was for Lisa to have problems beyond her fixing, that everything went as bad as it possibly could, and that’s why we had Trump be president before her”.
As others have remarked, if we have to get past President Donald Trump to get to President Lisa Simpson, maybe the future won’t be so bad after all.
Future-Drama (Season 16)
During an argument over who’s gay for Moleman, (spoiler: no-one) Bart and Lisa tumble into Professor Frink’s basement. As the show’s grasp on reality and continuity has slackened even outside of the regular Treehouse Of Horror specials, Frink has become the enabler of a bunch of mad science, and he’s the one who facilitates the future vision in this one, using advanced computers to preview Bart and Lisa’s teenage years.
This episode introduces Jenda, (Amy Poehler) Bart’s first love and future wife, as she initially rejects his proposal due to his underachieving ways. However, it’s with this episode that we note how the whole future might just depend on Lisa’s love life. After Bart prevents her from winning a scholarship to Yale in a bid to impress Jenda, Lisa almost considers settling for her ex, “emotionally unstable mini-Hulk” Milhouse, who was her balding Chief of Staff in the previous timeline. Given where she is in the next timeline we see, she clearly has one of two paths in life.
Future-Drama plays out pretty straightforwardly with the present-day Bart and Lisa passively watching a future that doesn’t teach them anything about where they are now. As a result, a lot of the background jokes are funnier than the main story here – in the throes of a mid-life crisis after separating from Marge, Homer has bought an underwater house where he still has issues with the neighbourhood (“Stupid flounders!”) and the nation’s youths are being harangued to enlist in the armed forces for Gulf War V: Find Our President’s Head. The weird technology gets a boost too – as Marge coos at one point, “We can do anything now that scientists have invented magic.”
Holidays Of Future Passed (Season 23)
Holidays Of Future Passed was originally designed by producer Al Jean as a potential series finale, due to a contract dispute that might have seen the voice cast walk out on the show. They renegotiated and The Simpsons shows no sign of slowing down, but this flash-forward to Bart and Lisa three decades down the line is as close as we’ve seen to a series finale so far.
Starting in the present, the time that elapses between the status quo and this particular future is recounted in a series of 26 Christmas card photos, in which Lisa is shown to be bisexual and polyamorous at various points in her life on the way to settling down with Milhouse. Elsewhere, Bart is a slacker who lives at home until he’s pushed out, marries Jenda and then gets divorced.
As Bart and Lisa bring their kids home to Homer and Marge for Christmas, they bristle over how well their children get on with their grandparents. Unlike Future-Drama, this gets some lovely character stuff out of key relationships, rather than only manufacturing a potential future out of various character cameos (Chief Ralph Wiggum is now in charge of Springfield’s police force and Apu’s octuplets have all had octuplets of their own) and futuristic sight gags, (such as a superbly designed sequence in which Lisa enters the VR world of a now-sentient Google.)
The character beats are highlighted in a standout scene in Bart’s old treehouse. There’s no other situation in which these two characters can get drunk together and reminisce about their childhoods. Strangling children has been made illegal since “Homer’s Law” came into effect, so they now mutually appreciate that their own parents had their work cut out raising them. The symmetry of ending as it began, on a Christmas episode, would have been very nice, and it also gives Maggie (perpetually silent no matter how old she is) a Nativity story as she tries to get home for Christmas while going into labor.
The show’s continuation meant that we got a sequel episode two seasons later, called Days Of Future Future, which looks further into the relationships seen here while indulging in sci-fi plots like Homer burning through hundreds of clones created by Professor Frink (him again) to become a face on a screen, like Holly from Red Dwarf, and Lisa doing charitable work with the undead, including her milquetoast husband. However, it’s not as strong an episode as Holidays Of Future Passed, which would have made a heck of a finale in the timeline where The Simpsons wrapped up five years ago.
Barthood (Season 27)
Contrary to the other episodes we’ve covered, this spoof of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is primarily a character study of Bart, covering his past, his present and his future. There are a fair amount of the now expected retcons therein, but it does mean that we retrieve some of the little-seen closeness between Bart and Grandpa, a dynamic which has been somewhat underutilised since Season 7’s Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in The Curse of the Flying Hellfish.
But throughout the episode, the central arc is about Bart growing up in Lisa’s shadow. Lisa effortlessly outstrips him academically, their parents are prouder of her than they are of him, and even Milhouse likes her better than he likes Bart.
By sticking to the near future and keeping focused on the relationship with Bart and Lisa, we get a less inventive but slightly more thoughtful take on how they might grow up. Nothing here matches the treehouse scene, but Barthood still marks an interesting change of pace, even if it’s unlikely to be anyone’s favourite episode. The cultural references and world-building definitely take a backseat and are pretty much constrained to Homer and Bart lying in the grass at the beginning and end of the episode, a la Boyhood.
Oh, and Lisa’s dating Nelson in this one, but that’s only incidental. Similarly, Barthood‘s recent follow-up Mr. Lisa’s Opus isn’t nearly as rich in its alternate history and future of Lisa, reprising gags like the Michael Jackson birthday song and the All In The Family parody from Lisa’s Sax, now with lampshade-hanging Norman Lear cameo. There’s an all-too brief interaction with her Harvard roommate Valerie (voiced by Kat Dennings) who could be “maybe more than a friend”, but we’ll just have to file that away in our grand unified theory that all of these divergent timelines may hinge upon Lisa Simpson’s love life.
The Don Hertzfeldt couch gag
Finally, a couch gag that gazes into the infinite future and sees only The Simpsons. The Season 26 première Clown In The Dumps was prefaced by one of several guest directed couch gags in recent years. Following in the footsteps of Guillermo del Toro and Sylvain Chomet, Academy Award-nominated animator Don Hertzfeldt offered up an idea that Jean called “the most insane one we’ve ever done.”
The bizarre segment takes 2014 Homer from his original Tracy Ullman Show character model up to his mutated, catchphrase-yelling mutant form in the 37,000th episode, by which point “The Sampsans” is a surreal and seemingly mindless screensaver that still boils down to Marge loving Homer, while dishing out subliminal messages like “All Hail The Dark Lord Of The Twin Moons” or “Beam Epasode Now Into Exo-Skulls And Vigorously Touch Flippers.”
Hey, we don’t know what Disney has planned now that they’ve bought up Fox’s TV and film properties, but mathematically, we must be closer to the end than we are to the beginning by now. Many have speculated that the series will wrap up for good in the next couple of years, after Season 30 wraps next year. But Hertzfeldt’s couch gag, like any of The Simpsons‘ futuristic episodes, envisions that these characters might go on forever, and that their floating timeline has.