This might sound silly, but I can't get the question out of my head.

In some TV shows a person may die in one episode and come back the next - actions in one episode do not seem to have consequences in the next. In other shows, what's done is done and scenarists can't resurrect people - worlds have more coherence.

Is there a specific term that captures this difference? I've thought about realist vs fantastic but it seemed a bit broad.

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    Continuity is the general term; there's a continuity person for anything that's shot out of order, for instance, to make sure that the magazine on the coffee table in this scene is in the same place it was left at the end of the last scene, which was filmed 3 days ago. As for foreshadowing, there's the dramatic term the McGuffin, which refers to the thing everyone is searching for in many plays -- the holy grail, the clue to the murder, the smoking gun, the Eye of the Idol, etc. – John Lawler Jan 19 '15 at 19:27
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    Are we talking about the difference between a serial where the plot continues from one episode to the next, and a series where each episode is self-contained? – WS2 Jan 19 '15 at 20:08
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    Ah, but killing Kenny is continuity! – Hot Licks Jan 19 '15 at 20:49
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    In Abbot's Flatland universe it would be "unreal" for a two-dimensional character to "rise above the plane of his existence." In Montgomery's Avonlea universe it would be unreal for Matthew Cuthbert to come back to life. In Lewis's Narnia universe it is perfectly real for Jadis to be killed by Aslan at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but then reappear in Prince Caspian, and again in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Three fictional universes with different realities. – ScotM Jan 19 '15 at 21:46
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    O my God! This about South Park!...You badtards! – ScotM Jan 19 '15 at 22:15

I would describe a show that maintains a realistic flow of events as having 'Continuity' and one where events don't have persistent consequences as lacking continuity.

con·ti·nu·i·ty ˌkäntəˈn(y)o͞oədē/ noun 1. the unbroken and consistent existence or operation of something over a period of time. "pension rights accruing through continuity of employment" synonyms: continuousness, uninterruptedness, flow, progression "a breakdown in the continuity of care" a state of stability and the absence of disruption. "they have provided the country with a measure of continuity" a connection or line of development with no sharp breaks. plural noun: continuities "they used the same style of masonry to provide continuity between new and old" synonyms: continuousness, uninterruptedness, flow, progression "a breakdown in the continuity of care"

2. the maintenance of continuous action and self-consistent detail in the various scenes of a movie or broadcast. "a continuity error"

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    Definition 2 refers to "self consistent detail". I take "self consistent" to mean that a universe needs only to adhere to it's own rules, and not the rules of other universes. – Dave Magner Jan 19 '15 at 22:12
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    We find ourselves in a Groundhog Day conundrum. If the fictional universe does not require persistent consequences, it does not lack continuity if events don't have persistent consequences. :) – ScotM Jan 19 '15 at 22:24
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    In the show "South park" the first several seasons have a character who dies every episode but appears in subsequent episodes with no mention of his frequent deaths. We could take this to still maintain continuity if we assumed that the rules of that universe involved daily reincarnation... but at the same time death is discussed, it is known to exist in that universe. For some unmentioned reason this rule is broken, this is the breaking of continuity. – Dave Magner Jan 19 '15 at 22:31
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    Continuity describes the difference in the OP, but the opening sentence of this answer belies the connection. Kenny died over and over for five years, returning in the next episode without explanation, because the fantasy universe of the program permits it: the persistent consequences of Kenny's death were irrelevant in his universe. When they didn't bring him back, the lack of continuity provoked some fans to boycott the program, compelling the writers to bring him back. Dave's answer has conflated continuity and reality! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenny_McCormick – Good A.M. Jan 21 '15 at 16:01
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    That is a comment and not an answer...In regards to your claims: The magical nature of Kenny's resurrection wasn't retconned into the lore of the show until season 4, until that point his resurrections were a breaking of continuity. – Dave Magner Jan 21 '15 at 20:18

I believe the term willing suspension of disbelief reconciles the difference between realistic television programs where:

worlds have more coherence

and fantastic television programs where:

actions in one episode do not seem to have consequences in the next

Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that authors could induce the reader to suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of their narrative:

transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

Biographia Literaria

Some television programs create a fictional universe that closely resembles the real world. Grey's Anatomy roughly approximates the world of surgical fellows, residents and attending physicians in the realistic fictional world of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. Some patients get better, others die, and from time to time the doctors bring their patients back from the dead. Except for the pace of action, everything is consistent with a real-world scenario. Fans willingly suspend disbelief of the pace to follow the romantic intrigues of their favorite characters.

Other programs create a fictional universe that departs immensely from the real world. For his first five seasons in the fantastic fictional world of South Park, the cartoon character Kenny McCormick dies repeatedly:

Prior to season six, Kenny died in almost every episode.[note 1] The nature of the deaths was often gruesome and portrayed in a comically absurd fashion,[8] and usually followed by Stan and Kyle respectively yelling "Oh my God! They killed Kenny!" and "You bastard(s)!".[9] Shortly afterward, rats would commonly appear and begin picking at his corpse.[10] In a following episode, Kenny would reappear alive and well, usually without any explanation. Most characters appear oblivious or indifferent to the phenomenon, although occasionally one will acknowledge an awareness of it.

The comical absurdity of Kenny's serial death and resurrection compelled such an intense human interest in Kenny that some fans erupted in protest when the writers refused to bring Kenny back after Kenny Dies:

["Kenny Dies"] was the one episode where [all the characters] cared [he was dying] for once. After that, we said, 'Why doesn't he just stay dead?' And it was like, 'Okay, let's just do that.' It was that easy of a decision. I think a lot of people probably haven't noticed. I couldn't care less. I am so sick of that character. —Matt Stone, from a 2002 article in the Knoxville News-Sentinel[13]

...fans were significantly angered by Kenny's absence to threaten a boycott of the cable channel Comedy Central, on which South Park is aired.

When Kenny came back at the end of the sixth season, the fictional universe of South Park still permitted Kenny to die and return again, but the writers shifted the human interest of the program away from Kenny to other characters.

Nevertheless, Kenny returned from the year-long absence in the season six finale "Red Sleigh Down", and has remained a main character since, and has been given larger roles in episodes. His character no longer dies each week, and has only been killed occasionally in episodes following his return, at least once per season.[17] Only Season 12 and 17 do not feature a single death regarding Kenny.

Whether the fictional universe was realistic or fantastic, the continuity of the viewers human interest in the characters and their situation compelled them to willingly suspend disbelief. Overlooking the inconsistencies between their real world and the fictional universe of the story, they they simply enjoy the story.

  • I don't completely agree. Suspension of disbelief is when you ignore the fact the radioactive spiders give you superpowers. It is altering facts as we know in the real world. Suspension of disbelief is expected of the audience. But altering facts already established within the construct of the show/movie is a different thing. – Tushar Raj Jan 20 '15 at 13:07
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    Continuity and suspension of disbelief fit hand in glove for this question. Writers compel the suspension of disbelief by creating a continuity in characters and situations. This answer would be better if you gave specific examples of the fantastical universes you refer to. You should also connect it directly to the South Park issue, which seems to be the real rub. – Good A.M. Jan 21 '15 at 16:10
  • @Tushar, that seems to be the essence of the OP. How can some programs permit fantastic fictional occurrences, while others stick to real world limitations? Continuity addresses maintaining the fictional universe, retcon addresses repairing breaches in continuity, suspension of disbelief addresses creating a fictional universe. – ScotM Jan 21 '15 at 19:16
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    I donèt think this really fulfills the request but it is tangentially applicable and the accompanying information is impressively comprehensive so +1. – Dave Magner Jan 26 '15 at 3:27

'Continuity' seems to be the consensus for when actions have consequences from episode to episode. TvTropes defines the opposite (e.g. Kenny dying in every episode of South Park) as Status Quo is God: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StatusQuoIsGod


I think the word you are looking for, to explain the altered plotlines, is:


It is derived from retcon, which is short for retroactive continuity.

From wikipedia:

Retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is the alteration of previously established facts in the continuity of a fictional work.

  • I don't see the connection of retcon to the question. It seems that Kenny's serial death is part of the original plot line. – Good A.M. Jan 21 '15 at 16:15

You may be thinking of something as simple as the difference between series and serial.

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