In my opinion, the television series Frasier had one of most well played bits of retcon.
(Short for "retroactive continuity." Wikipedia article here.)
When Frasier first went on the air, I watched the first episode eagerly. For like many, I’d grown fond of the character on Cheers. Being the detail freak that I am, however, something did not sit well with me. How is it that they could include Frasier’s father in the series? For I distinctly remembered Frasier saying at Cheers that his father is dead. He also mentioned that he’d been a research scientist. So…how could his father be an ex-cop wounded in the line of duty and more than lively bitching about wanting his chair?
I let it slide though, given that the show proved pretty good. And Martin Crane (dad) along with the other wonderful new characters had me wanting more. Sure, I still wished the writers had scoured every utterance of the “original” Frasier on Cheers. So, I sort of grudgingly enjoyed watching the Frasier spin-off. Over time, perhaps I forgot about it due to what became compelling entertainment.
Who am I kidding? It always gnawed away each time I watched. (I didn't watch religiously, but watched much.) While doing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I mentioned my gripe to Theseus/Oberon. He smiled and said it bothered the hell out of him, too. (Woe to us who curse ourselves with remembering stuff.) But you know what? He told me with an even bigger smile that they addressed the issue!
In an episode of Frasier, Sam Malone (the bartender at Cheers and friend of Frasier) comes to visit Seattle (where Frasier is set, as opposed to Cheers in Boston.) Upon being introduced to everyone in Frasier’s apartment, Sam is surprised to meet Martin Crane. Sam states that Frasier said he’s dead. And when Niles (Frasier’s brother) playfully says he bets Sam has heard many a tale about him, Sam replies that Frasier never mentioned him. (It’s true, we heard nothing of Niles before Frasier, created for the series.) Martin and Niles are, of course, miffed that Frasier didn’t present them correctly (or at all.) Frasier then explains in a huff that he’d just had a fight on the phone with his father before going into Cheers that night he’d said Martin’s dead.
And thus, we have the retcon. The marvelous retcon that Frasier lied. I laughed at the ingenious little patch the writers put on it. So deceptively simple! Of course characters can lie. But it just never occurred to me that he would have been. Why would we not accepte his declaration of his father’s demise and career choice at face value? How could we have known? He also changed Martin's job to make him sound more important [in Frasier’s eyes.]
Thanks to the magic of TiVo, I have finally been able to see the episode when Sam comes to town. And let me tell you, I laughed outright. Bravo to John Mahoney for his portrayal of Martin Crane upon discovering what his son had said. “You told him I was DEAD?” could not have been any funnier. The whole scene worked wonderfully.
In general retconning seems like a bad thing to me, as it implies that someone didn’t pay attention. But in rare cases like this one, it produces great results.