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What You Need To Know About The SpongeBob SquarePants Timeline

Of every cartoon to hit the airwaves in the time since the invention of the television itself, few are as consistently popular and culturally relevant as "SpongeBob SquarePants." Beginning on Nickelodeon way back in 1999, the program debuted in an era when genre heavy-hitters like Dexter's Laboratory and Rugrats ruled the animation roost, so the series had to work hard to measure up to their success, and it did just that. It became a staple of pop culture practically overnight, and, as of 2020, has earned its place as the cornerstone of the network with over 265 episodes under its belt, and counting.

Simply put, "SpongeBob SquarePants" is invaluable to Nickelodeon, whether it be through ratings, merchandise sales, spin-off material, or anything in between, so it makes sense that they're not taking active steps to put the series to bed. As a result, viewers continue to speculate how it'll inevitably conclude, no matter how near or far away that day might be. 

Strangely enough, all of these predictions might be unnecessary, considering that the "SpongeBob SquarePants" timeline is set up in such a way that its "series finale" already exists — maybe — and has been in circulation for over a decade and a half. Here's what you need to know about how this situation came to be.

Some people think the first SpongeBob SquarePants movie is the canon's ending point (or is it?)

2004 proved the right time for SpongeBob SquarePants (Tom Kenny), Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke), and all of their undersea friends to arrive on the big screen. Simply titled "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," it seems that the late Stephen Hillenburg intended the feature to cap off the spongy, yellow fry cook's story for good. The former marine biologist feared the series would lose its luster should it continue — in an interview with the Washington Post, Hillenburg said, "There was concern when we did the movie [in 2004] that the show had peaked" — and besides, three seasons was plenty for a program of its kind, so a theatrical adventure seemed like the perfect conclusion. Nick felt very differently, and the show trudged along anyway, leading to Hillenburg's eventual resignation from his position as showrunner (via Screen Rant). In the years that followed, audiences began to take notice of a decline in quality with each successive season, with the humor growing less sharp, the characters suffering from rampant "Flanderization," and the stories becoming increasingly uncharacteristic of the program's earlier efforts. 

Because of this, many fans have taken to believing that the SpongeBob movie — having originally been intended as the finale — is, in fact, the chronological finale in the timeline: In other words, everything that came out after "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" is set prior in the timeline.

However, while some attribute this belief to Hillenberg himself, others disagree: For example, when "SpongeBob SquarePants" creative Vincent Waller was asked whether the movie still counted as the chronological finale on Twitter, he responded, "Never was [...] SB had never really been officially chronological. I know that breaks peoples' brains."

It seems that "SpongeBob SquarePants" doesn't follow a similar linear framework as cartoons like "Adventure Time" or blockbuster franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's a show designed for you to turn on when you want a good laugh, but one you don't necessarily have to play close attention to. Nevertheless, if you want to finish your "SpongeBob SquarePants" binge with a solid ending, "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" is your best finish line.