Retcons suck! Well, sometimes they do. Retcons are a way for writers to overlook established facts about a character if it serves the interest of the current story. The problem is that when you’re a serious fan, such a casual disregard for continuity can be annoying. Especially when it comes out of nowhere and makes little to no sense.
When people say retcons, they think comic books or maybe sci fi. But even sitcoms have been known to rewrite their own history for no good reason. Once in awhile it is ok. Like when The Huxtables went from four children to five. Or on Will & Grace when Karen’s maid suddenly went from not understanding a word of English to speaking it fluently. Sometimes these changes are ignored, other times they are acknowledged with one simple line of dialogue. Here now are five examples of when a show changed established continuity for no good reason.
The Golden Girls
This isn’t a huge one but is worth noting. On this series Rose had a long term relationship with a man named Miles. He was a teacher and appeared several times. Then at one point, for some reason, the writers decided to mix things up. It was suddenly revealed that Miles was actually an informant for the FBI, currently living under the witness protection program. When Miles has to flee, this causes a crisis for Rose. A crisis that only lasts a few episodes when Miles returns and the mobster after him is captured. This was obviously a cheesy way to shake up Rose’s story for a season, and the whole thing is quietly forgotten the next year. What makes it even worst is an earlier episode involving Miles overprotective daughter. A daughter who is of course never mentioned when the whole informant stuff comes up.
This one may be up for argument, but when we first met Roseanne’s dad he was a nice enough guy. As the series progressed it turned out he was an abusive jerk who was also having an affair for many years. It’s kind of weird to see the early shows when her father was around compared to what we know about him later. Her mother wasn’t off the hook either. As the show progressed she went from being a meddling mother to an alcoholic and even a lesbian.
Another small one, but one that is amusing when you catch the re-runs. In the early days of this show one of the running jokes was Tim making fun of how large his mother in law was. There were a few slams thrown at her in a couple episodes. Then they decided to cast the character, and did so with the charming Polly Holiday. To say the least, she is not heavy so when the character appeared the first thing they acknowledged was how much weight she has lost. Suddenly the fat jokes against Nana were gone, and Al’s mother took over as the but of Tim’s constant jokes. This actually worked better anyway because we got to see Al react to them. By the way in case you wonder why Al’s mother didn’t mind the jokes, it was suggested in one episode that she had a very good sense of humor.
Everybody Loves Raymond
This one is a better example of a show tossing their own continuity out the window. In one episode Ray meets Amy’s bother Russell. Russell was played by Paul Reubens and in the episode Ray goes to Russell’s comic book shop. This was a one time appearance and Reubens was good. A few years later they decided to make Amy’s brother a regular character. For whatever reasons Reubens didn’t come back, so they cast Chris Elliot in the role. All well and good, except that they changed the name of the character for some reason! Peter was just like Russell, and in case your thinking maybe it was meant to be another character when we first meet Peter both and he Ray state that they met in his comic book shop once! Thanks to re-runs the show can’t get away with this, Ray met Russell in the comic book shop not Peter. But of course we have to forget that.
This show was pretty good with maintaining continuity, but what they did to Jesse has already aggravated me. First off all, in the first season Jesse’s lastÂ name was Cochran. Around season three it was decided to make Jesse more Greek, so for no reason his name suddenly became Katsopolis (which does sound better to be fair). But the name thing isn’t the change that really bugged me.Â I am referring to the episode where we find out Jesse did not graduate from high school. To be fair, the episode does a decent attempt of making it clear this was a big secret he never told anyone. However, in at least two episodes Jesse references his graduation and one of those episode was about his returning for his high school reunion!
I bet you’re expecting me to talk about how Judy Winslow disappeared after a few seasons. Well, I already discussed that so instead lets talk about how Steve changed from his first appearance. Very often when a character first appears he does not resemble what he becomes. Steve is like this. When he first appeared, Steve Urkel was a creepy kid famous for eating a mouse. Carl enlisted him to go out with Laura so Laura would not go out with a guy Carl hated. When Steve took off, they retconned his back story so that he had always been in love with Laura, and of course lived close enough to The Winslow’s to be a huge pest. By the way, Steve is not the only character to be revamped. Kramer on Seinfeld was originally an agoraphobic who never went outside. Fonzie on Happy Days wore a blazer and hardly spoke. And on Friends Joey was originally the jerk of the group and ended up being the sweetest guy on the show.
This show has done this. A lot. The creators on this show freely admitted that they did not worry to much about continuity, and man it shows. Chandler is the character who probably suffers the most. I can take little things like Phoebe’s ever changing back story, or Ross’s career going from a dare in college to a lifelong passion. But Chandler kept getting new traits heaped on top of each other. First he can’t cry, even though we have seen him cry. Then he can’t smile for pictures, even though we have seen him smile for pictures. Then we find out he is missing the top of his toe, even though we have seen him barefoot and his foot was fine. Then he hated dogs, even though we have seen him around dogs. But the worst has to be the burning question, when exactly did Chandler meet Rachel?? Chandler and Rachel are introduced in the pilot, and then two years later we establish that he met Rachel a year earlier. This could be overlooked, maybe it was a chance encounter and forgotten. But the next year we establish that Chandler and Rachel met way before the pilot, at the Geller’s for Thanksgiving. Not one year, but twice!
Will & Grace
I gave this show a pass in the start of the article, but now I want to talk about one thing they did which really annoyed me. They would always have these big season finale episodes where something huge happens, only to undo it the very next season. The first season ended with Will & Grace deciding living apart would be better. The next episode we see they just moved across the hall. By the third season, they are living together-again. Making that whole end of the first season pointless. The second season ended with Will having a hard time, he actually runs off to an island and is told he will become partner at his law firm. This barely makes it ten minutes into the season opener before it is all undone and the status quo is restored. Oh, and Jack and Karen hate each other. Want to guess how long that lasted? The third season ended with Grace deciding to stay with her new interest Nathan. Ok, that stuck awhile. But the very last scene is Will meeting what is set up as the potential next big relationship. Which is quickly dismissed by one line in the opener of the fourth season! What is the point of giving such weight to these cliffhangers if they are going to be dismissed so quickly the next year?
The Death Retcon
Often a character will be killed off, and then the creators want to bring them back so they will retcon the death. This happened on Will & Grace, Karen’s husband dies in one season only to have it be revealed a few years later that he faked his dead. Considering the circumstances of his death that would seem unlikely. Phil died on Murphy Brown only to return in the final episode, turned out he had been in the witness protection program (or something). Of course the most popular example is not from sitcoms, but drama. When Dyansty wanted to return Patrick Duffy a year after his character was killed off, they had him appear in the shower and it was explained the whole prior season was nothing more than a dream!
Sometimes a show will spin-off a character, and change things so the character can fit the new show. The best example is Frasier, who went from being an only child with deceased parents on Cheers to having a brother and father on Frasier. This was explained in a fantastic scene during the Sam Malone episode, it seems Frasier was angry at his father and may have mentioned Niles but no one was listening. Clever. Other examples include Good Times where Florence went from living in New York to living in Chicago, and changed husbands. When Laverne and Shirley first appeared on Happy Days they were much sluttier than they would be in the series (especially Shirley). Designing Women had a spin off with Delta Burke’s character and gave her a brother that had never been mentioned before. And thankfully The Brady Variety Show was best forgotten during the subsequent reunion specials.
Lots of little one’s in this series. Jerry mentioned a sister early on who vanished. George also mentioned a brother who vanished. Susan Ross became a lesbian at the end of her story arc in season 4. When it was time for her to return as George’s fiancee in season 7, the lesbian thing is quickly retconed away. Finally, Kramer spends the majority of the series basically unemployed and in one season nine episode we finally get a reason. It turns out he was on strike all that time, a strike which has been settled in this episode. Cute, but it really doesn’t make sense especially when you consider all the short lived jobs he had through the course of the series.
And finally, how could I not mention the most infamous example, from The Simpsons. The episode where we discover that Principal Skinner isn’t quite what he claimed to be. Turns out that he stole the identity of Seymour Skinner. That’s the cliff notes version but you get the idea. It’s sort of like my Golden Girls example except worst, because Skinner wasn’t a minor recurring character but a regular that people liked. Also, Skinner’s lie made him a criminal while Miles lie made him a hero. This episode is generally hated, and while I have never seen it I have sure heard about it and can understand why it is so despised.
Of course one of my favorite retcons ever was the one which made Demo Reel the plot hole, but that’s another article. Ah, retcons! I am sure I missed others, so if you remember one that I didn’t mention please feel free to share.