Movies are self-contained environments. Everything you need to know for the story in a film to work should be revealed over the course of its running time. The Terminator, made in 1984, is a pretty simple sci-fi story: Bad guy robot comes from future to kill lady, good guy follows, lady is saved, and we learn that maybe the real Terminator was inside of us all along. It isn’t complicated, but it’s well told. The Terminator was a somewhat surprising hit, so of course there had to be a sequel, and that’s where the story starts to require context, and gets pretty self-referential. (essay continues after GIF set)
TV shows are almost always serialized, by design, in order to draw the viewers back each week. It isn’t hard to figure out Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge, and Maggie after their opening credit introduction, but we get a much fuller picture of who they are and their relationships after seeing… oh lets say 226 episodes and a handful of shorts. The trick of being a sitcom is that at the end of each episode things always snap back to where they were at the beginning. Even when Lisa became a vegetarian, it didn’t require a weekly reminder that she did so. Similarly, you don’t need to know Homer failed remedial science in high school, or that Maggie shot Mr. Burns. It makes the evolving world of the show richer to remember these things in the back of your mind, and you might catch a couple more jokes if you do, but even in highly self-referential episodes, such as “Homer’s Enemy” where Homer tries to endear himself to Frank Grimes by pointing out highlights from his charmed life, like winning a Grammy and traveling into space, don’t require you to know the details—it is funny enough just hearing him rattle of his absurd list of achievements as Grimy’s blood boils.
7 years after making him a star, Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron resurrected the T-800, this time a franchise-minted hero! But how? At the end of the first Terminator, the bad robot was destroyed, failing in its mission to kill the future savior of humanity, thereby eliminating the very timeline it came from, from ever existing—right? That’s where T2 uses the scraps of the previous movie to build some great continuity on. It turns out, the trashed skeleton of the T-800 have been scooped up by the Cyberdyne company, who exploit the future-tech, and wind up causing the disaster that creates the whole robot-overrun dystopian future to begin with. It’s best if you don’t think about it too hard.
Intricate references to previous episodes isn’t something The Simpsons does much. In fact, the show regularly contradicts itself with multiple versions of Marge & Homer’s wedding, Mr. Burn’s age and childhood, and countless other small incidents. (We won’t mention a certain pointless retcon from season 9, under penalty of torture.) Television shows are created by dozens or hundreds of writers over years, it makes sense that some plot points, important for just a few seconds in one episode, get lost in the shuffle over time. As long as the stories stay true to the series’ premise, and the characters remain moderately consistent, the show keeps working. The Simpsons’ creators have even had fun at the expense of obsessive fans by “lampshading” intentional contradictions and retcons. For long-running shows, though, time causes bigger problems: each season becomes another layer of bricks in the show’s structure—the house gets bigger, but the pile of raw materials gets smaller. There are fewer new stories to be told, and the variations available get sliced thinner to the point were emotional beats and plot points feel rehashed.
The same problem of diminishing returns has effected the Terminator franchise. T2 told the definitive story its world was meant to tell, but when they drive a dump truck of money up to your door, even an unstoppable killing machine is only human. There have been three additional sequels to the Terminator, plus a TV show on FOX. There’s not much for audiences to come back for except increasingly convoluted time travel schemes, bonkers excuses to explain why the apocalypse is still happening, and an entire CGI industry built around making an aging action star the perpetual hero in Sarah Connor’s story. As long as the brand keeps making money, though, and as long as we keep buying it, there’ll be more. Who knows what adventures the Terminator will have between now and the time the franchise becomes unprofitable.
This recasting was something Diana picked out. Diana had a really weird upbringing, and was not allowed to watch certain things, such as Saturday morning cartoons. But when her drunk, neglectful, Homer-like father was around, anything went. If he was watching TV, and he likely was, there was a good chance that what was on the screen was either The Simpsons or a video of Terminator 2. Even as a 7-year old that probably shouldn’t have been watching it, she loved this movie. The combination of a cool female protagonist, a kid protagonist, and rad fighting robots, made this an action movie even a little girl could love.
A few months ago, local cult movie concern Cult Classics showed Terminator 2 at a theater in Tempe. We went to see it, of course -the first time we’d seen it on the big screen. We had a great time, and of course we had to recast it. It’s a no-brainer; besides Diana’s history with the movie, The Simpsons paid homage to Terminator 2 several times in the show – the famous scene of Homer melting into the bushes, Homer chasing down Flanders’ car, Principal Skinner tailing Bart through a river, and of course the Robotic Richard Simmons that we chose for this film’s antagonist. Hope you enjoyed it!