Storytelling Engines: The Simpsons
(or "Packing Up The Shop")
Futurama, Matt Groening's second television series, suffered from a single great problem that afflicts all too many science-fiction/fantasy shows. It was on the Fox Network. (Rimshot.) The series' creators, all of whom had gained a lot of experience while working on the Simpsons, designed their series almost as an exercise in creating a good storytelling engine; the futuristic setting allowed for any number of stories set on any number of distant, quirky planets, and the delivery-service that the show centered on gave them a good reason for going there. Fry, as an unfrozen 20th century guy, served as a viewpoint character and a handy source of exposition for the strange world of the future, and all of the characters had their own private frustrations and unfulfilled desires that expressed themselves in comic ways (Fry's unrequited love for Leela, Leela's need to find her true parents, Zoidberg's desire for wealth and legitimacy, et cetera.) Really, you can go back through just about every column I've done, looking at things other series did right, and you'll find them expressed in Futurama at some point or another.
But unfortunately, Fox has a love/hate relationship with sci-fi series. The executives never got behind Futurama, never understood its appeal, and seemed to go out of its way to scuttle the show. By the time the fourth season rolled around, the show's creators knew that they were going to be canceled. This actually afforded them some unique opportunities--not totally unique, of course, as there have been other series that have had the time to wrap up their dangling plot threads, but certainly Futurama was part of an exclusive group. Their final season, produced with the threat of cancellation looming over their heads, explained Leela's parentage, gave Amy and Kif a family (albeit one that could be conveniently ignored in all future episodes) and in the final episode, showed Fry and Leela finally finding each other.
All of which changed the group dynamic pretty radically, of course. That wouldn't be a problem for most canceled shows--apart from a comic-book spin-off series that seemed set in a perpetual continuity twilight of "sometime before all the big changes happened", nobody really expected the series to come back. But this is the 21st century, the new Golden Age of archival fiction, and DVD sales forced Fox to sit up and take notice of the fan following of their canceled show. (All except those execs who were beaten to death and ground into a fine powder with a million uses, of course.)
The series revived itself with straight-to-DVD movies, and one of the interesting things to notice is the way that they set about finding ways to rejigger the character dynamics to something with a bit more long-term comedic storytelling potential. So Fry and Leela took a step back from the couple they were implied to be at the end of the series, Amy and Kif took steps both forward and back, and the next release will feature a return of Mom (of the Friendly Robot Company.) The shifts aren't dramatic--but they didn't have to be, since the writers had taken a little care to hedge their bets at the end of the series. (Other series, such as the classic Britcom 'Only Fools and Horses', took less care with their "permanent" endings, and had to take more drastic measures when the show unexpectedly returned.)
So what does this say about the storytelling engine of the series? Only that in the current era, when a series can slowly build demand through DVD releases, Internet communities, and word-of-mouth, it's wise to anticipate a return for your storytelling engine. Because nowadays, the only way you'll go away for good is if you're really out of stories to tell. And that's exactly what a good storytelling engine is supposed to prevent.