“In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones.” – Fat Nerd
To the viewer, episodes and seasons of shows like The Simpsons follow a simple structure based on the order they were originally broadcast. A new season begins sometime in the fall, often but not always in September, and the episodes are cataloged by the order in which they appeared during each season. So, for example, a list of Season 1 looks like this:
1-1 – Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire
1-2 – Bart the Genius
1-3 – Homer’s Odyssey
1-4 – There’s No Disgrace Like Home
1-5 – Bart the General
1-6 – Moaning Lisa
1-7 – The Call of the Simpsons
1-8 – The Telltale Head
1-9 – Life on the Fast Lane
1-10 – Homer’s Night Out
1-11 – The Crepes of Wrath
1-12 – Krusty Gets Busted
1-13 – Some Enchanted Evening
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” was the first episode to be broadcast (17 December 1989), and the season concluded with “Some Enchanted Evening” (13 May 1990).
This is also how the seasons are organized when they are released on DVD. The Season 1 DVD set contains three discs. Disc 1 is episodes 1-6; Disc 2 is episodes 7-12; and Disc 3 contains episode 13. Most seasons have around twenty episodes instead of thirteen, but the same pattern has been followed ever since.
However, the order in which the episodes are broadcast is only loosely related to the order in which they were created. That information is recorded in what’s called a “production number”. These numbers track not the order in which episodes were first aired, but the order in which production was begun. Since some episodes take longer to produce than others, they don’t come in the same order as the broadcast runs, and to the casual observer they read like something just above gibberish: 7G09, 8F08, 1F11, AABF20.
Deciphering a production number amounts to little more than breaking it down into its constituent parts. Each year’s production run is given a letter designation, and then each episode is given a number. So 7G09 is actually “7G” “09”, meaning the ninth episode of the 7G production run; and AABF20 is “AABF” “20”, the twentieth episode of the AABF production run. Each production run coincides roughly with a single broadcast season, as shown in the chart below:
Because some episodes are delayed or held over, the first episodes of each season are often from the previous season’s production run. Similarly, whenever the show runner changed, the previous show runner often still had a few episodes to finish up, which could slip into the next production run. Finally, there was a four episode, off-schedule production run, the “3G” episodes, that was run by Al Jean and Mike Reiss, and which broadcast two episodes each during Season 8 and Season 9. So a detailed, side-by-side comparison of production vs. broadcast will show all kind of quirks and anomalies.
That minutia, however, isn’t critical to a general understanding of how the show was produced. Since each new production run saw changes to the writing staff (some larger than others), and those changes were a major factor in the show’s decline into undead stupor, the table above is all a casual fan needs to know to understand the basic outline of how the show deteriorated.
Continue to Appendix C – December 17th: Simpsons Day.