Back to the Drawing Board: In Defense of “The Simpsons” ‘Principle and the Pauper’ Episode
There are few certainties in this world. One of the most prevalent is that ‘The Simpsons’ used to be practically perfect in every way. However, has since gone downhill.
Now some of that is still open to interpretation. The public seems to agree that the golden era of the show were seasons 3 through 8. It’s not hard to see where they’re coming from in terms of the sheer amount of classic episodes that came out during that time. Personally I think the golden era extended a few seasons beyond that. In fact, season 9 contains my personal favorite episode “Lisa’s Sax.” For me the best time for “The Simpsons” were when Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein were running the show. It had the best balance of really funny jokes with genuine emotion. They quit after the 8th season as they didn’t want to overstay their welcome.
As is common with TV shows in the next season there were a few holdover episodes from their time. One of their last episodes caused to this day quite a lot of controversy. In fact, many fans consider it to be the point where the show “jumped the shark.” Is it even that common of an idea? Well we do know for a fact that series creator Matt Groening referred to it as one of his least favorite episodes in his DVD introduction for that season. The voice actor of Skinner himself (Harry Shearer) hates the episode. So yeah I say it’s a pretty widely held belief.
I’ve seen a few videos claiming this as the moment when “The Simpsons” golden era ended. I’m sorry but not only do I not agree, I’ll go so far as to say it’s actually an episode I really like. Definitely one of my all-time favorite endings to an episode of the entire series. But I’m getting ahead of myself let’s go over the main “problem” of the episode, the premise. Principle Seymour Skinner is thrown a party filled with friends, family and other citizens of Springfield celebrating his 20th anniversary of being principle. A recently released army Sergeant (voiced by Martin Sheen) comes to claim that he is the real Seymour Skinner. Our Skinner admits that he is indeed an imposter. Really a former orphan greaser named Armin Tamzarian. After Sgt. Skinner was presumably killed in action, Armin assumed his identity. The rest of the episode is about the town coming to grips with this revelation before fully accepting him back as Skinner and having the real Skinner run out-of-town.
So most people complaints are that this reveal ruins the character of the Skinner (Armin). We had spent the previous 8 seasons learning bit by bit about him and his past (something not often afforded to other minor characters at the time). We learned that he served in Vietnam and even suffered (in comedic ways) from war flashbacks. He’s Norman Bates levels of a momma’s boy. So let me ask, what does this actually destroy character-wise? He’s still a Vietnam vet and all those flashbacks could easily still happen. We just now know he wasn’t always so uptight and why he eventually became the way he did. “The Simpsons” never have cared much about their continuity they’ve always been willing to throw it out the window for a joke. Try figuring out the floor plan or where the tree next to Bart’s bedroom is supposed to be for evidence of that. That’s not to say I don’t care about the character of Skinner, he’s one of my favorites too. But I recognize that he like everything else in the series follows the rubber band concept of reality.
So on top of everything else the episode is just straight up really funny. With some of my favorite jokes of any episode. As stated before the ending is one of my favorites. Other show runners talk about a unifying style of the humor of the show being “screw you audience!” You can’t get more of that than to end with the show literally tying up a “war hero” to a train leaving town simply because they all decide they like the imposter better, even his own mother. Speaking of which Agnes Skinner is one of the most basic characters of the show with just constantly being a cranky controlling old woman. Yet, they give her a surprisingly touching moment near the end where she declares despite the reality, Armin is her real (forcefully adopted) son. They even do this while keeping her her typical cranky self. Later they even have some great callback jokes to this in later episodes. So in conclusion this episode hardly seems like the worse one ever. In my opinion, they need to take this cartoon comedy less seriously.