Deconstructing The Simpsons’ most controversial episode
WORDS BY JASPER BRUCE
During the 1990s, The Simpsons set endless benchmarks. It changed what people thought was possible for a cartoon in terms of longevity, writing quality and ability to stir controversy. Most would agree that the show hit its peak between seasons 5 and 8, and has never quite regained those lofty heights in the years since. There are probably many things that are to blame for this - changes in writing staff, the rise of similar shows and the sheer fact that producing consistently hilarious comedy for over ten years is nearly impossible. Many point to one episode, season 9’s “The Principal and The Pauper” as the beginning of the end for the world’s favourite cartoon family.
In this episode, it is revealed that Principal Skinner is actually an imposter. Since returning from service in the Vietnam War, Skinner (real name Armin Tamzarian) has been posing as his platoon sergeant who went missing, and was presumed dead, during the war. When the real Seymour Skinner arrives in Springfield, Tamzarian’s secret is out. But after the rest of the town decides they don’t really like the new Seymour Skinner, he is banished and Armin Tamzarian resumes his identity as Seymour Skinner.
The episode is frequently criticised for its wackiness. By all counts, The Simpsons had become pretty good at wacky storylines by this time. They’d constructed and destroyed an entire monorail, blown up a dam, blocked out the sun, trapped Bart down a well and had Homer jump a gorge on a skateboard. Is it fair, then, that “The Principal and The Pauper” cops the brunt of what is really just a defining characteristic of the show at this point?
In my opinion, the reason this episode oversteps the mark comes down to a couple of things. First is the amount of plot that has to be ignored to integrate it into The Simpsons canon. Skinner’s iconic Vietnam flashbacks now count for nothing nor do any references to his childhood or adolescence. At a push, you could argue that his dysfunctional relationship with his mother is now also less alluring. While the series is certainly not free of plot holes, it usually keeps character’s backstories more or less intact from episode to episode.
Secondly, the episode sets a precedent of resolving outlandish plots in an overly convenient way. I believe that part of The Simpsons’ success is that each is episode is fairly self-contained. Strange stories work themselves into a nice little circle whereby the Simpson family end much the same way as they began. This particular episode’s resolution is perhaps the most rushed and jarring in the show’s run up until that point. It’s as if the writers are struggling to keep to the style of plot structure they’ve set for themselves. Improbable plot resolutions have become par for the course in the years since and this episode set a dangerous benchmark for future writing.
Finally, and perhaps most grievously, is that “The Principal and The Pauper” discredits and takes for granted the audience’s emotional attachment in the pursuit of cheap laughs. Between season 1 and season 9, we’d related to Skinner’s struggles with his boss, Superintendent Chalmers, we’d suffered with him through his unemployment and cheered for him as he found love with Patty (it happened, look it up) and then Ms. Krabappel. Principal Skinner occupies a fairly unique place in the inventory of Simpsons characters. He has enough power and proximity to the Simpson family to affect its members, and the character development to have episodes based almost entirely around him. This can’t really be said for many other characters - Mr. Burns and Grampa are the only others that spring to mind. Perhaps if this episode erased and re-built the backstory of a less significant supporting character (Bumblebee Man, Groundskeeper Willie, Professor Frink, Otto, Jimbo, Kirk Van Houten, Martin, Helen Lovejoy, Kent Brockman…the options are endless), it wouldn’t have mattered as much. But given Skinner’s importance to the show since the beginning, viewers feel cheated by this episode - his future place in power structures within the show is now illegitimate and our emotional investment in him is corrupted.
The latter of these points is especially problematic for a show that usually balances satire and sentiment so cleverly. For every wacky storyline, there’s a heartfelt conclusion, a poignant comment on the working class family or a flash of genuinely beautiful writing. This episode ignores what makes The Simpsons special. It ignores why it’s better than Family Guy, South Park and any other cartoon. It has heart. And if this episode is to be believed, that’s expendable.