Does it make sense to reset your characters' development in a episodic show like South Park or Family Guy?

I often see that the characters ignore some of the things that happened in previous episodes. Is it a good idea, or is it something that can alienate your viewers? Why is this often done? What are the pros and cons?

  • 2
    "Why is this often done?" - because in the olden days, before on-demand streaming services, people would miss episodes or watch them out-of-order due to re-runs. By making each episode self-contained, viewers could make full sense of each episode regardless of which other episodes they had seen before.
    – kaya3
    Jan 29 at 0:31
  • @kaya3: It could be argued that this was not about on-demand, but a peculiarity of American/Western animation. Live action TV has had some degree of continuity for a long time (see for example most soap operas), and this is also true of non-Western animation such as anime. Western animation did start to have continuity around the time of BTAS, which is long before modern streaming services.
    – Kevin
    Jan 29 at 1:44
  • 1
    @kaya3 A connection could be made to the commedia dell'arte, where the idea is just to show the unconnected possible interactions between a set of already-known characters. After a show goes on long enough, and characters become well known enough, they can get even more like that--Everyone (in the intended audience) knows the key character traits of Homer Simpson, or of Spongebob, just like everyone in Italy during the heyday of the commedia dell'arte knew the key character traits of Pierrot or Pantalone.
    – Hearth
    Jan 29 at 2:12
  • @Kevin That's true, but there was also plenty of live action TV that was released in mostly-self-contained episodes with just as little long-term plot development, e.g. sitcoms, detective shows, Star Trek, and so on. It's hard to have a "sit"com if the "situation" isn't mostly fixed. Speaking from a UK perspective, I remember there were also plenty of TV shows that did have a story told over each entire season, but these shows tended to have relatively short seasons (say, 6 episodes each), so it would have been easier for a viewer not to miss any episodes.
    – kaya3
    Jan 29 at 10:26
  • @kaya3: You're right about most of Star Trek, but DS9 absolutely had an overarching plot, which was told over the course of the whole series. There were a few episodes you could (probably) miss, but overall, the expectation was that viewers saw most or all episodes in order. What made animation different, IMHO, was that this expectation almost never applied to an animated show. Even BTAS itself was a bit early for that, but shows like Gargoyles did push the envelope on this as much as they could get away with. It didn't really die off until the success of ATLA.
    – Kevin
    Jan 29 at 22:26

2 Answers 2


It is my opinion that every episode in a long running and episodic series should be considered to happen in an alternate universe of its own, separate from the alternate universes of other episodes. except when one episode is clearly a sequel to an earlier episode.

We can imagine that the creators of an episodic and non serialized series search thousands and millions of alternate universes for ones in which the protagonists have interesting experiences which can make good stories - and which the protagonists survive.

And thus a writer can find ways to make it explicit that different episodes of his series happen in alternate universes.

So a series about a secret agent named Bond Jameson could have a episode that begins when his boss decides to send him to Egypt and not to Libya. The next episode could open with the same scene only his boss decides to send him to Libya and not Egypt.

The old cop comedy Car Fifty Four Where Are You? (1961-1963) had a theme song describing the tasks it might be assigned.

There's a holdup in the Bronx,

Brooklyn's broken out in fights;

There's a traffic jam in Harlem

That's backed up to Jackson Heights;

There's a Scout troop short a child,

Khrushchev's due at Idlewild;

Car 54, Where Are You?

So in a police comedy or drama or action show several episodes might happen on the same date , each opening with the dispatcher deciding whether to send car 45 to the scene of a holdup, or a traffic jam, or a visiting foreign leader, or a street fight. And in each such episode the dispatcher makes a different decision and the cops have different experiences at the different places they are sent.

And in a science fiction series the starship Enterprising might sometimes have different episodes set at the same time, where they are sent on different missions to different stars systems. And maybe sometimes the Enterprising might travel to an alternate universe where they meet the starship Invincible, which is a big surprise to both crews. In the universe the Invincible is from the Enterprising was destroyed by the Negative Space Wedgie at Zorgton V, and the Invincible later destroyed the Negative Space Wedgie, while in the universe the Enterprising is from, the Invincible was destroyed by the Negative Space Wedgie at Zorgton V, and the Enterprising later destroyed the Negative Space Wedgie.


And of course a writer Could write episodes where the protagonists ae defeated and even killed by the problem of the week. Each such episode should followed by another episode that starts the same but at a critical moment something happens differently followed by increasingly different events leading up to the protagonists surviving.


You, as the creator, have to decide about the following two things: (1) whether your work is "episodic", or whether it relies on continuity; (2) whether your work is more serious or more comedic in nature.

(1) Some serial works are very much intended to be composed of individual episodes, and it should not matter greatly in which order they are consumed (read/watched/etc.) Surely, if you read/watch the episodes out of order, you may miss an occasional reference, but this should not detract greatly from the enjoyment of the episode. In this case it should not matter all that much if you reset the characters' development after a single episode (TvTropes calls this Negative Continuity). On the other hand, some serial works are very much continuity-reliant: if something happens in an episode, we expect the changes to stick in the following episodes. Here, resetting character development would be a bit more problematic. As a creator, you have to decide which of these two models you wish to follow.

(2) In more serious works, character development is serious business, and it is expected that it should "stick" — if a character learns a life lesson, he should not simply forget about it in the next episode or next instalment. On the other hand, in a comedic work such as Family Guy or South Park this is much more tolerated — the "life lessons" that characters learn are not expected to be taken all too seriously, so a form of negative continuity (where characters forget all they learned in the previous episode) is much more common.

  • Important to note that dramas can use a reset switch, and comedies can not reset, so basing it on "seriousness" might be a misnomer. There are many dramatic works that have a reset switch (particularly action series, detective/police series, superheroes). And many comedies which have an overarching plot, like The Good Place, or even the romantic vicissitudes in Friends. And as far as being "serious", soap operas have complex multi-episode plots but are very un-serious, while a philosophical show could certainly reset (e.g. episodic science fiction).
    – Stuart F
    Feb 2 at 16:59

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