“The Principal And The Pauper” (season nine, episode two; originally aired 09/28/1997)

In which that’s not a funny story, but I guess you had to be there…

In the last few installments of The A.V. Club’s classic The Simpsons coverage, there’s been something akin to an air of dread hanging over our reviewers, the feeling that in this journey through the show the best is almost over. The so-called Golden Age of The Simpsons, that point where the show churned out classic after classic, finally reached its end as the eighth season wrapped up, its satirical engine and sense of the world of Springfield finally starting to run out of steam as the writers struggled to find new stories to tell. The series would continue to produce good-to-great episodes—several of which are still present in season nine—but the show’s batting average would never again be what it was.

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When people talk about how the ninth season represents the point where The Simpsons began its steep decline, “The Principal And The Pauper” is always cited is Exhibit A. It’s not the worst episode the show’s ever produced from a quality standpoint—our modern-day Simpsons reviewer Dennis Perkins could give you at least a dozen worse installments based on his personal experience—but if fans were polled, this is the one the majority would agree is the jump-the-shark moment. Matt Groening, in the ninth season DVD introduction, calls it out as one of his least favorite episodes. Harry Shearer has over the years used such terms as “arbitrary,” “disrespectful,” and “a horrible mistake.” It inspired our Inventory on subplots shows threw out the window and cracked our TV Club 10 on the show, described as the one episode that “wounded the faithful first and hurt the most.”

Revisiting the episode all these years later is an interesting experience. There are some sturdy jokes (which we’ll get to later) peppered throughout, but there’s a sense of underlying wrongness to the whole endeavor. That wrongness is tied inextricably to the episode’s central conceit: that milquetoast educator and mama’s boy Seymour Skinner is in fact the Don Draper/Dick Whitman of Springfield, a man who stole his commanding officer’s identity and has been living a lie for 26 years. Exposed at his 20th anniversary party by the real Sgt. Skinner—newly liberated from a Chinese sweatshop—Skinner reveals his true name of Armin Tamzarian and his Rebel Without A Cause past: “Those who recall my fight to outlaw teenage rudeness may be shocked to learn that I, myself, was once a street punk.”

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The problem with this story isn’t that it’s trying to add shading to a previously existing character—our Inventory on Simpsons characters who evolved over time proves the show can do that extraordinarily well. The problem is that it’s a change that makes no sense for this particular character. On the commentary track, writer Ken Keeler and showrunners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein argue that they are able to tell this story because of Skinner’s tertiary nature to the show, but that belief represents a willing disregard for history. Look at the tremendous “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadassss Song” from season five, or the wonderfully touching “Grade School Confidential” only a few episodes before this one. The blandness and orderly nature of Skinner’s life—“the rod up that man’s butt must have a rod up its butt” as Superintendent Chalmers puts it after witnessing his daily rituals around the school—is who he is, and it’s too hard to believe he was ever so radically something else. It’s also doubly insulting that they use this plot to discredit Skinner’s previously alluded Vietnam experiences, a detail as key to his character as the way he’s cowed by Chalmers and his mother.

Keeler also attempts to redirect audience distaste in the commentary track by arguing that this was intended to be satirical, a take on “a community of people who like things just the way they are.” Yet that argument doesn’t hold up either. Compared to other episodes with a more overt aim to skewer, like “Homer’s Enemy” or “The Itchy And Scratchy And Poochie Show,” the satire on the people of Springfield isn’t clear enough beyond a mid-episode Kent Brockman dig at the town’s “adaptable” citizens. The reactions are never outraged or indignant enough to feel like that’s what the episode is about—indeed, when Marge addresses the topic directly, her argument on why this makes her uncomfortable is entirely valid. Springfield is as malleable and mob-ruled as ever, pushed in whatever direction is most convenient, not up in arms that this destroyed their comfortable bubble. “The Principal And The Pauper” scratches against the fourth wall without ever breaking it, and can’t get its message through as a result.

It also suffers from the fact that Sgt. Skinner isn’t the unlikeable character that Poochie was or that Frank Grimes became—a key detail that allowed both of those earlier jokes on the audience to work. Voiced with aplomb by Martin Sheen, who was cast based on the producers’ affection for his work as a Vietnam veteran in Apocalypse Now, Sgt. Skinner is entirely believable as the man who’d inspire young Armin into a better life and who could phrase an oddly sound argument to become principal: “If a man pretending to be me could do it well, then, logically, the real me must be far more qualified.” True, he’s bit uptight and lacking in some social graces, but it’s not his fault that he’d rather go to a bar at 7:30 on Friday night than sit for silhouettes with his mother. The only thing that’s wrong with him is that he’s not the Skinner Springfield and the audience have grown to love over eight seasons, which on balance isn’t enough.

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Credit where credit is due, though. Despite being a terrible episode for the real Skinner in the universe of The Simpsons, this is ironically also an episode that has many great Skinner moments. While Shearer’s never hidden his distaste for the episode in the ensuing years, he does a great job applying Skinner’s typical monotone delivery to his radically changed circumstances. The matter-of-fact way he goes about cutting ties with his life is a very Skinner thing to do (“I know we were planning to see a film tonight but instead, I’m leaving town forever,” he tells a heartbroken Edna), and the way he tries to slide back into the role of Armin is rife with comedic potential. It’s a toss-up for best line between his delivery of “Up yours, children” and the literal way he reads a strip club advertisement. He can’t go back to being Armin Tamzarian from who he is now—though again, largely because it makes no sense he was ever this guy in the first place.

Aside from the Armin of it all, Keeler does craft a few vintage lines and interactions using the Simpson family. Homer remains the one with the foresight to move toward the cake (even before Chief Wiggum, who brought his own plate and fork), which is a great cut-to-commercial gag in the aftershock of the Skinner/Sgt. Skinner reveal. The family’s discussion of the merits of Shakespeare’s “rose by any other name” quote is a delightful non sequitur (Marge: “I’d sure hate to get a dozen crapweeds for Valentine’s Day. I’d rather have candy.” Homer: “Not if they were called scumdrops.”) And the scene in the car, where Homer tries to piece together why exactly everyone is in said car, is vaudevillian humor in its escalation and the way he decides he doesn’t need to know why Jasper tagged along. Discouraging as other things might be, The Simpsons is still close enough to its prime that it can generate instantly quotable lines.

Speaking of the trip, this episode is also noteworthy as one of the few instances where Agnes Skinner displays more depth than the elderly shrew who holds an iron grip on her son’s independence. Her rejection of her real and fake sons displays some great willful ignorance (“I have one stranger and one fraud!”), and her admission that “there was a weenie you could be proud to call your son” is the one time she feels like an affectionate mother. So often, Agnes is treated as a joke—see the Psycho homage back in season four’s “Brother From Another Planet” as a particularly stark example—that any degree of humanity is pleasantly surprising. It’s what ultimately makes some of the scenes work that shouldn’t, ones that create the emotion that having Skinner in Springfield is a thing worth fighting for.

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Yet Agnes’ strong-arming her adopted son to return leads to the greatest sin of “The Principal And The Pauper,” the ending. It calls attention to the episode’s structural flaws by pointing out that no one in Springfield cares about the big reveal once the shock has worn off, and then Sgt. Skinner’s speech about giving up half his life for Springfield transforms everyone else into the bad guy. The episode writes itself into a corner, and the only way out is to ride Sgt. Skinner out of town on a literal rail. Once again, Keeler argues for meaning in this move by making it a commentary on how America treats its veterans, but that argument (while more reasonable than earlier ones) loses its strength given the episode spent its running time invalidating the military career of someone who until this episode was one of The Simpsons’ most decorated war heroes.

The ending adds insult to injury as it sweeps everything that just happened under the rug. Any show can retcon a storyline out of existence (see again: our Inventory on the subject) but those moves can be done if it happens between seasons or even between episodes, and you don’t call attention to it. This is made an overt part of the text, thanks to a decree from Judge Snyder that Skinner is the one true Skinner, and Agnes immediately shutting down Skinner’s closing promise to loosen up a bit. It’s a resolution that’s entirely too direct and up front in its neatness, an acknowledgement that this is a TV show and it can get away with hitting the reset button if it wants to.

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That, in the end, is the true betrayal of “The Principal And The Pauper.” It’s not that it’s a terrible episode of The Simpsons, or that it forces you to have this element of the character in your mind every time another Principal Skinner storyline comes up. No, what damns this episode in the history of The Simpsons is that it’s where it became clear for the first time that the people making the show didn’t hold Springfield and its citizens in the same light as so many of its fans. The message sent was that preserving its carefully constructed universe was secondary to the goal of producing an episode, and this world could be taken apart and put it back together as necessary. And the act of disassembly and reassembly, performed with ever more frequency from season nine on, is what spelled the end of The Simpsons Golden Age.

Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage:

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  • The commentary track on this episode is worth listening to for the degree of frustration that runs through Keeler’s voice. “I can’t remember who came up with the idea of destroying the series,” he half-jokes at the start, but his sense of irony is short-lived the deeper he gets into his arguments. And while far more time is spent defending the idea of the episode than discussing the specifics other tracks get into, he does reveal that the name Armin Tamzarian came from an insurance adjuster who helped him out following a car crash.
  • While the existence of Tamzarian can never be revealed in the show under penalty of torture, The Simpsons does occasionally does allude to it: Season 11’s “Behind The Laughter” uses a clip to demonstrate the show’s increased reliance on “gimmicky premises and nonsensical plots,” and season 15’s “I, D’oh-bot” shows Lisa calling her umpteenth cat Snowball II and pointedly shutting down Skinner’s criticism by calling him “Principal Tamzarian.”
  • The teachers lounge serves coffee-flavored Bevarine. Chalmers takes his gray, with Creamium.
  • Interesting trivia: Skinner has no idea who Ned Flanders is despite the fact that Flanders once took his job and is head of the PTA.
  • Great sight gag: No one bothered to take down Skinner’s anniversary banner between the party and his assembly to announce his resignation.
  • Skinner’s mementos include his card for the Radio Shack Battery of the Month club, and $10 in Canadian currency from his trip to upstate New York.
  • Apparently outside the storage facility after dark is the place for fourth graders to hang out.
  • Some good Ralph Wiggum lines here too: “Principal Skinner is an old man who lives at the school.” “Teacher made me go to Principal Skinner’s office when I was dirty.” “When I grow up, I wanna be a principal or a caterpillar. I love you, Principal Skinner!”
  • “It’s my twentieth year too.” “The teachers’ lounge is for teachers, Willie.”
  • “Now, I know the school normally serves cake only on Thursdays. And I’m also well aware that today is Friday.”
  • “They gave me a choice: Jail, the army, or apologizing to the judge and the old lady. Of course, if I’d known there was a war going on, I probably would’ve apologized.”
  • “I suppose I’ll have to find a hotel.” “I won’t hear of it. Tonight you can sleep on the floor of your office.”
  • “Just put an ‘X,’ then call yourself whatever the hell you want.”
  • “That child is the most disobedient, smart-alecky, middle-aged man in creation!”
  • “This is Armin’s apartment, Armin’s liquor, Armin’s copy of Swank, Armin’s frozen peas.” (Homer: “Can I see your copy of Swank, Armin?”)
  • “I’m sorry, Seymour. It’s nice you’re alive, but you’re just not what I’m looking for in a son. I’m glad you understand.”

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Next time: As we prepare you for a review of “Lisa’s Sax,” Kyle Ryan would like to pass along the words of advice his father gave him: “You’re as dumb as a mule and twice as ugly. If a strange man offers you a ride, I say take it!” Lousy traumatic childhood.