Many people consider the second episode of the Simpson’s ninth season, The Principal and the Pauper, to be one of the worst of the series. And, well, they’re wrong. Or, more accurately, they probably stopped watching the series around that time, and haven’t seen a lot of episodes from the double-digit seasons. If you’re only considering episodes up to season nine or so, The Principal and the Pauper probably is one of the worst episodes of the Simpsons. That’s probably true for the season as a whole, as well. Many consider season nine the start of “post-classic” Simpsons. When the show, now approaching thirty years, started being more bad than good. Now, I’m not going to debate that this is when the show started to go downhill, but I like to refer to this era using a name I’ve borrowed from the Simpsons podcast Worst Episode Ever: purgatorio. The show was nowhere near as bad as it was going to get, but it was starting to lose some of the magic it had in the classic seasons. It was still a good show–I think may Simpsons fans will agree with this–but it wasn’t necessarily a good Simpsons show. The Principal and the Pauper is a perfect example of this. It’s a weird mix of good episode and bad episode, something that would define the whole show around the late 90s and early 2000s.
The storyline of The Principal and the Pauper follows Seymour Skinner, the straight-laced principal of Springfield Elementary. After over a quarter century living in Springfield following the Vietnam War, Skinner is revealed as a fraud. His platoon leader, the original Sergeant Skinner, was captured and presumed dead, while instead being taken to a forced labour camp only recently shut down by the UN. Upon his return to Springfield, we learn that the man who had spent the last twenty years as principal is actually Armin Tamzarian, a no-goodnik from the mean streets of Capital City. After stealing an old lady’s purse and crashing into a judge on his motorcycle, Tamzarian is sentenced to enlist in the US Army. There, the real Skinner takes him under his wing, and he blossoms into a good person. Following Skinner’s supposed death, Tamzarian returns to Springfield to inform his mother, and unable to do it, instead takes on his life.
Despite this being a pretty dumb plotline–screwing with the backstories of well-known characters is never a good idea–The Principal and the Pauper is a decent episode. First of all, it’s funny, something really important in a comedy show like the Simpsons. In the first two acts especially, I found myself laughing as much as I would in a season six or seven episode. “Skinner likes dog food” is a line that makes me laugh out loud whenever I hear it, and I’ve heard it a lot. Furthermore, it’s a pretty emotional episode. The relationship between Skinner and Tamzarian, both in the past and in the present, is a strong one. What Tamzarian did was wrong, but he did it for the right reasons. Skinner, to his credit, understands this to a certain extent. He’s certainly not happy about it, but he can see why Tamzarian did it, and has an appreciation that his mother had lived a happy lie for the past 26 years. Even Agnes accepting Tamzarian as her son is really strong. It seems a bit strange at first, Tamzarian and Skinner look nothing alike, but you have to consider that she’s a mother whose son is off at war. When a man in a military uniform shows up on your front door out of the blue, you’re going to assume the worst. It’s clear to the audience and Tamzarian that part of her knows he isn’t really her son, but the lie is something that will make both of them happier.
The episode is also full of some great images. The Simpsons has never been a bad looking show, but it’s not a show that’s prided itself on its outstanding images, either. The Principal and the Pauper is one episode that has some really good looking shots in it. There are instances like this throughout the show, but the ones in Principal I feel are some of the most impressive, especially the openings scenes of the war, with soldiers and cover silhouetted by bright red explosions. There’s also an excellent scene change just before this, as Tamzarian tells the story of his arrest, we jump from Capital City in the past to his office in the present. The characters are perfectly placed, with Tamzarian in the centre of the screen as the images change. One of the police officers holding Tamzarian in the street switches to Skinner in the office, while the large-shouldered judge becomes the large-shouldered Superintendent Chalmers. It’s something I never noticed until I sat down to look at the episode objectively, but now that I’ve seen it, I’m very impressed.
Aaaand, now for the bad. I’m happy saying The Principal and the Pauper isn’t as terrible as some people claim, but I’m not going to say it’s a good episode. The real Skinner’s abrupt introduction could give you a bit of whiplash, as he walks in on an assembly honouring the fake Skinner. Now, we do see him driving past the school earlier and seeing his name on the school sign, and I appreciate the show getting down to to the main storyline quickly rather than dragging out the first act. I can also understand the writers wanting the reveal of the real Skinner to be quick, and I agree, but the way it was done just doesn’t feel right to me. Then we have the whole third act, which is just painful to watch. There aren’t a lot of funny jokes, and all the emotion we saw earlier in the show is gone. It’s also really strange to see Tamzarian try to go back to his old life. He had become a good guy under Skinner’s guidance, and returning to Capital City to live life as a street punk again rings a bit hollow. Now, he isn’t actually able to start living that life again after so many years as a no-nonsense administrator, but I have a hard time believing he’d even try. In Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Badasssss Song, a season five episode where we also see Skinner/Tamzarian lose his job as principal, he re-enlists in the army. This definitely feels like something he would do again, especially because the army is the root of both his shame and pride in this episode, and a place where he could turn that shame back into pride. And of course, we have that notorious ending.
Hoo boy, that ending. The fake Skinner thing is pretty bad, once again this is a character who we’ve seen expanded on quite a bit over the previous years. And again the things that come from it aren’t bad in and of themselves, the bad part is how insulting it is to Skinner’s character. Had he been just some random principal that we hadn’t really gotten to know over the years, I think the community would hate this episode a lot less. But the ending is just flat-out terrible, and would be terrible on any episode of any show. The town decides they liked the old Skinner (Tamzarian) better than they do the new Skinner, and decide to literally run the Sergeant out on the rails. Judge Schneider then legally changes Armin Tamzarian’s name to Seymour Skinner, and decrees that no one shall ever speak of the incident again, “under penalty of torture.” It’s deus ex machina at its finest, or, I suppose, least fine. And again, if we hadn’t gotten to know Skinner over the previous eight seasons, they could have done something different with this. Had he been just a minor character, would it have been so bad for him to get replaced, and stay replaced? A change from “principal” to “army man”, if all we really knew about him before was “principal”, probably wouldn’t have been terrible. The Simpsons generally returns to a point of status quo at the end of every episode, but there had been some changes before this that stayed changed. Homer learned he had a brother in Brother Can You Spare Two Dimes? and a mother in Mother Simpson, both of whom return in later episodes. Sideshow Bob is revealed as a bad guy in the season one episode Krusty Gets Busted, and comes back frequently throughout the series. And just one season earlier in A Milhouse Divided, we see Bart’s best friend go through the divorce of his parents, a plot point that’s continued to this day. Kirk and Luanne Van Houten had always been pretty minor characters, and when we saw them undergo a major change, we weren’t angry. Granted it wasn’t a goofy change, but still. Major changes aren’t inherently bad, but if they’re done to relatively major characters, then need to be done well.
The biggest problem with The Principal and the Pauper, aside from its painful ending, is how poorly they treat Skinner/Tamzarian. This goofy change probably could have been pulled off in a world where Skinner was just a minor background character, had the new normal continued throughout the show. The biggest problem is that Skinner is a character we had come to know and love throughout the years. He wasn’t a major character, but he was also far from a background character. In a vacuum, it’s actually a pretty good episode most of the way through. But what it does to the established Simpsons canon is insulting, to the audience, to the show, and to Skinner himself. Is it a bad episode of television? No, I don’t think it is. Is it a bad episode of the Simpsons? Yes, it is. Not as bad as the show would get, but far from good.