Wow, Season Nine really started in a weird place. I haven’t really decided when the show started falling apart for me, but I know a lot of people consider Season Nine the end of the Golden Age of the Simpsons, and the beginning of the descent. And there are plenty of people who specifically pick this episode as the harbinger of the end of quality. “The City of New York vs Homer Simpson” has gotten controversial only in later years, and because of the something unrelated. This episode was controversial at the time, and is widely reviled. This is the episode that Matt Groening called a mistake. And you know what? I kind of like it. A lot. So let’s figure out what’s wrong with me!
The episode starts off with Principal Skinner going about his morning routine, making sure everything in the Elementary School is absolutely perfect. And while he’s doing that Superintendant Chalmers is sneaking around behind him like the Pink Panther, trying to stay hidden. And he finally ditches Skinner when he reaches the teacher’s lounge, sneaking in. He then starts explaining to the teachers there that Skinner has been principal of the Elementary School for twenty years, and there’s a big ceremony to honor him coming up. We also learn that it’s Willie’s twentieth anniversary too, but when he announces that Chalmers just responds with “The teacher’s lounge is for teachers Willie,” forcing him to leave. So the whole school starts planning the celebration, all while Skinner doesn’t know. Lisa and Ralph gets set up to write a report on Skinner’s life, and Bart makes some refreshment, including good old “America Balls,” which are lumps of dog food with American flags stuck in them.
We then cut over to the Skinner household that Friday that night where we learn Seymour and Agnes’ weekly tradition is to make silhouettes, which is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. But that night Agnes makes Skinner put on a suit and get in the car with her, refusing to explain what’s going on. She takes him to the school where a whole surprise assembly full of townsfolk ready to praise him. The first presentation is Ralph and Lisa’s report on Skinner, which features Lisa giving an accurate description of his military career while Ralph says stuff like “when I grow up I want to be a principal, or a caterpillar.” But as the ceremony wears on we see a mysterious man voiced by Martin Sheen drive by the school who gets shocked by the sign congratulating Seymour Skinner. So he pulls over and heads on in right as Seymour is in the middle of a speech, announcing that the man we all know as Seymour Skinner is an imposter, and that he is Seymour Skinner. Which understandably shocks everyone, which results in Homer’s amazing inner monologue, “keep looking shocked, and move slowly towards the cake.”
So both Skinner’s, Agnes, Superintendent Chalmers, Edna, and for some reason the Simpsons, head into Skinner’s office to figure out what the hell is happening. Skinner admits that the story is true, that his real name is Armin Tamzarian, and that this new Skinner’s story is true. Apparently the real Skinner was involved in an incident in Vietnam, and has spent the rest of his years as either a POW or a slave, and was just released. Turns out Armin was a no good street punk in Capitol City, and after stealing a purse from an old lady and hitting a judge with his motorcycle, he was sent to Vietnam. Because he didn’t want to apologize to them, and figured joining the Army would be easier. Armin was a bad solider, until he met Seymour Skinner, a commanding officer who becomes like an older brother to him. That is until Skinner appears to be blown up by the Vietnamese. Armin then takes his possessions back to Springfield to give the bad news to Agnes, and decides to pull a Dick Whitman and pretend to be Skinner. Which Agnes just apparently rolls with.
And after explaining the crazy story, the town starts to reel at the news. Armin starts living in his office, since Agnes disowned him and kicked him out of the house, while Skinner starts lobbying to be the new principal. And now that the whole town can’t trust him, Armin realizes things aren’t going great for him. Although it does lead to the hilarious scene where Marge just assumes Armin knows all the same people she does, and starts referencing Ned Flanders. But in the end, Armin decides he can’t live in Springfield anymore, and announces that he’s retiring so the real Skinner can take over. Which makes sense, as Skinner explains: “if a man pretending to be me could do it well, then, logically, the real me must be far more qualified.”
So Armin says goodbye to Agnes and Skinner, before heading over to say goodbye to Edna. They’ve apparently still been dating, and he announces that instead of marrying her and living as Armin Tamzarian, he’s going to leave town forever. So he goes to an old storage locker he owns, gets his leather jacket and motorcycle, and decides to live as a street punk in Capitol City again. So Armin heads out, delivering the hilarious line “Up yours children!” to Martin, Bart, and Milhouse, and heads off to a depressing life.
The only problem is that it quickly becomes obvious the real Skinner isn’t very appealing. Even though the city is holding televised ceremonies to welcome him, he doesn’t really fit well with the city. He comes to observe Bart’s class and is horrified at the lack of discipline and respect the class, especially Bart, has. He also doesn’t get along great with Agnes, and isn’t willing to spend every waking moment with her like Armin did. So people aren’t really liking the new Skinner. And things reach their fever pitch when Agnes, Edna, and Marge chat in the grocery store about how much they hate Skinner and miss Armin, and the end up deciding to go bring Armin home. Which leads to a ridiculous scene that I love so much:
Homer: “Okay, one more. Where are we going?”
Enda: “To Capital City.”
Homer: “Any why are you and the old lady in the car?”
Agnes: “We’re going to talk Armin Tamzarian into coming back.”
Homer: “And why is Marge here?”
Marge: “I came up with the idea.”
Homer: “And why am I here?”
Marge: “Because the streets of Capital City are no place for three unescorted ladies.”
Homer: “Why are the kids here?”
Marge: “Because we wouldn’t find Grandpa to sit for them.”
Homer: “And why is Grandpa here?”
Grandpa: “Because Jasper didn’t want to come by himself!”
That motley crew then gets to Capital City, and finds Armin, who has been working as the world’s most awkward strip club hype-man. They talk to him in his sad apartment, trying to convince him to come back to his old life. But Armin is depressed and obstinate, refusing to come be himself, that is until Agnes loses her cool and starts yelling at Armin, and everyone else, getting them in line. So they head back to Springfield and come to the Elementary School where a crowd of people have come to see what’s going on. They basically tell the city that Armin is here to continue his life as Skinner, and no one really cares. That is except for the real Skinner, who is pretty pissed. But the town comes up with a good way around that by tying him up, putting him on a train out of town, and telling him to never come back. And once the evil Skinner is gone, Judge Snyder shows up to tell Armin that he is now legally Seymour Skinner, both in name and history, and that no one in the town is ever allowed to bring up Armin Tamzarian again, under penalty of torture.
So yeah, this is a weird one. When I was younger I thought this was the stupidest episode I’d ever seen. Mainly for the same reasons that most other people have for not liking it. It’s just so strange. There are some solid jokes, but the whole idea of taking Seymour Skinner, this character that we’ve come to know and love over 9 years, and randomly announce that he was a fraud and not actually the person we knew is just bizarre. It’s not like we found out Homer was living under a false identity or something, it was Principal Skinner, a secondary character who had had a couple episodes devoted to him, but it still feels wrong. Because we’ve become invested in him. And to learn that he’s been living under a false identity for as long as we’ve known him just makes the character feel wrong. So yeah, I didn’t like this episode. That is until I listened to the commentary. Because while there were people on the commentary that complained about the episode, there were also people, like the writer, who fought for the episode, and explained their goal. Which is what turned me around. This episode was basically a troll on people who were obsessing over the show. They crafted this episode to irritate the kinds of people who were at that time complaining about the Simpsons on the internet that was around in 1997. The writers saw people who were obsessing over weird continuity errors in this ridiculous cartoon, and decided to screw with them. It basically becomes this weird experiment to tell people they shouldn’t be obsessing this much over a character. Every episode of the Simpsons more or less resets at the end of the run time. They’ll do ridiculous things that should radically change the course of the show, and then no one ever mentions them again. It happens all the time. So they decided to mess with this concept, and bring it to the extreme. So yeah, the episode itself is pretty mediocre, but for some reason, I find the background of it fascinating, and while it may represent the beginning of the end for the show, I kind of enjoy it. Plus it’s hilarious to me that basically the exact same plot happens in Mad Men, and everyone loves it when it happens there.
Take Away: Don’t take your entertainment so seriously. And it’s super easy to assume someone’s identity during wartime.
The Principal and the Pauper was written by Ken Keeler and directed by Steven Dean Moore, 1997.
Categories: Lifetime of Simpsons