180. The Principal and the Pauper

(originally aired September 28, 1997)
This episode is a little bit controversial. And by ‘little bit,’ I mean it’s the most controversial of the entire series. Similar to “Homer’s Enemy,” people often cite this one when talking about the death of the show, how this episode spat in the faces of the fans by disrupting the established canon. I can’t say that I share the vehement hate, but I do have my fair share of issues with this episode. There’s a lot to talk about with this one, so let’s blow through the story first: Springfield is shocked at the arrival of a Sgt. Seymour Skinner, who our Skinner reveals to be the genuine article. Turns out he’s really Armin Tamzarian, a Capitol City street punk who was sent to the army, befriended and built a deep report with the sergeant, then upon visiting Springfield to tell Skinner’s mother of his apparent death, assumed his identity for his mother’s sake. With the real Skinner back, Tamzarian realizes he needs to stop pretending and moves back to the city. But Agnes, Edna and the others find they’d rather have the old Skinner, but coming up with a solution to this issue won’t be so easy. Or they could just tie Sgt. Skinner to the flatbed of a train and send him out of town. Easy enough.

Let’s unravel this story step by step. On the whole, I don’t have an issue with Skinner being an “imposter,” and I don’t think it ruined his character. It made him a little bit richer, actually. Being under the wing of Sgt. Skinner showed him the errors of his past, and in the future as principal he would push strict obedience so kids wouldn’t end up like he did. And as an orphan with no real life back home, I kind of get why he would want to stay in Springfield as Skinner, to preserve the legacy of a man he felt so highly of. Kind of. Now… for what doesn’t make sense. Let’s just say that Agnes is the only living family member Skinner had. Springfield is a multi-generational town, people stick around there; so you’re telling me there’s nobody there that knew Skinner prior to being shipped out who ran into Tamzarian as Skinner and questioned this? Does Skinner sign leases and contracts as Skinner or Tamzarian? What about when he re-enlisted in the army? They must not have taken too kindly for the shenanigans. I’m willing to go half-way with a few of these points, but there’s just so many dangling issues involving a back story twist this major. Ultimately, it’s kind of a hard pill to swallow.

There’s also the issue with the real Skinner, in that we don’t really get to know him all that well. Again, I can sort of understand what they’re going for in the third act. We see the real Skinner in action, and he’s just out of touch enough with the rest of the characters that they’d feel uneasy about him and want the old Skinner back. But what did he do so wrong? As a man who was a POW for decades, he took mild offense to Bart’s warped version of the pledge. And he borrows his mother’s car. We gotta get this guy the fuck out of here; I guess that’s the point, that the characters are quick to act to get rid of this mild shake-up in their daily lives. The whole story is just so bloated and large that the final act feels so rushed and rash. We’re not sure what to make of Sgt. Skinner, he’s certainly not a bad guy, but he’s not all that nice either. When he gets ridden out at the very end, you feel kind of bad for him; with someone like Frank Grimes everything was building to that point and it fit with the running theme, here I’m not 100% clear on what’s being accomplished.

Any fan who hasn’t listened to the commentary for this episode should give it a listen. Writer Ken Keeler gives a vehement defense to it, in response to vicious Internet dwellers who wanted his head after its original airing. He talks about how the point of the episode may have ultimately ended up a little unclear, but it’s supposed to be a meta episode involving a shift in the status quo and the characters responding by sweeping the problem under the rug and pretending it never happened. Now I can’t besmirch Keeler; the man’s written some of the best episodes of Futurama, so he’s pretty skilled with a pen. But I will say if the aim here was to make a meta episode, they certainly kept it to themselves. Everything in the episode is handled so seriously, with dramatic music cues and scenes of serious dialogue. There’s no real wink to the audience; call back to “Poochie” where Roy shows up to spice up the show, but there’s nothing like that here. All in all, it’s a very bizarre episode that greatly misses its intended mark, but not quite the horribly offensive disaster many make it out to be. Skinner’s backstory may be a bit muddled, but I’d say “Hurricane Neddy” was much more damaging to Flanders than this is to Skinner. A somewhat interesting episode with a few laughs, but definitely bit off more than it could possibly chew in twenty-two minutes.

Tidbits and Quotes
– Nice opening with Skinner and his anal-retentive inspection of the school hallways. Chalmers is quite off-put (“Good lord! The rod up that man’s butt must have a rod up its butt!”)
– It’s kind of sweet at the beginning how Agnes berates Skinner into taking her out (“I’m sick of this house, and I’m sick of you!”) as a ruse to get him to his surprise party. Nice to see deep down she cares about her son. Speaking of, a whole other essay could be written on the degree in which she knew if Seymour was her son or not. It’s all a big tangled web.
– Lisa and Ralph tag team speaking of Skinner’s life and achievements. Ralph brings it home (“When I grow up, I want to be a principal, or a caterpillar. I love you, Principal Skinner!”)
– Narrating his flashback, Tamzarian speaks of how in his lowlife punk days it was only a matter of time before he ended up in front of a judge. Then young Armin plows his motorcycle into one. “They gave me a choice. Jail, the army, or apologizing to the judge and the old lady. Of course, if I had known there was a war going on, I probably would’ve apologized.”
– I like after Agnes’ dramatic proclamation “I have no son!”, Homer glibly responds, “Look, lady, obviously you have at least one son.”
– Tamzarian announces he’s giving up his position. Chalmers asks the real Skinner if he’s qualified to take over (“It’s been my lifelong ambition. And if a man pretending to be me can do it, well, then, logically, the real me must be far more qualified.” “Good enough.”)
– There’s a nice moment when Tamzarian leaves; he gives Skinner back his pocket watch, noting that his mother’s picture is inside and to take care of her. Skinner responds, “I’ll wind her every day.” I feel like this is a telling line about his character, but I’m not entirely sure if I should take it positively or negatively.
– Like the intro of the third act where the news crew continually irritate Brockman, first using the incorrect Skinner picture, then inserting the right one upside-down (“Idiots!”)
– Skinner is welcomed back to his home town with open arms, and he is quite pleased (“I must say, in many ways, Springfield really beats the old slave labor camp.”)
– Nice scene with Tamzarian reading off his script as flatly as possible attempting to bring people into Topless Nudes (“Capital City’s nakedest ladies. They’re not even wearing a smile. Nod suggestively.”)
– The ending is pretty crazy… first Homer spells out the point (“So he’s a fraud. I don’t care! His mom doesn’t care! Do any of you care?”) I guess addressing the audience. But we kinda do care. Then Skinner shows up and demands he be treated with some respect. Then they tie him down and ride him out of town. It’s just… I dunno, it doesn’t feel right. Though I do like Judge Snyder’s decree at the end (“And I further decree that everything will be just like it was before all this happened! And no one will ever mention it again… under penalty of torture.”) And Skinner’s claim that he’s going to loosen up a bit, but the town has just made it clear that they must keep the status quo, so that ain’t happening (“From now on, you’re going to see a new Seymour Skinner!” “Oh no we won’t!” “…yes, mother.”)

20 thoughts on “180. The Principal and the Pauper

  1. I thought the decree from Judge Snyder was an excellent nod to the audience from the writers – like they were saying “We knew exactly what we were doing when we wrote this.”.

    Maybe its not as meta as “Poochie” or the Spin-Off Spectacular, but I think it was a story just for a story’s sake, and it was to be taken in context with the continuity of the show like Homer’s multiple career changes – yeah, it happened, but don’t worry about it next week.

  2. As a meta episode, I think this works fine. The fact that it takes itself so seriously, I think, is another layer of its meta-ness – it treats this extremely ridiculous and hard-to-swallow revelation about Skinner’s past as the most important thing ever, when you know it’s just going to be forgotten about next week. It’s a brilliant subtle parody, not only of the fans for wanting everything just so, but of themselves for rewriting the characters’ backstories so damn much over the previous two seasons. Joey Jo Jo is right – they knew exactly what they were doing when they made this one.

  3. My biggest complaint with this one is that it was a big story that didn’t fit in to 22 minutes, which, as you said, left little room for humour. Basically it’s just a bit boring.

    Regarding the typical complaints that have risen about this episode over the years, there’s not many I agree with. For starters, this hardly ruined Skinner’s character. In fact, Skinner is very well done – but I don’t really like the idea of him being a teen rebel. That was clichéd (even if it was meant to be ironic, it was played unironically) and out of character. I couldn’t care less about continuity.

    Basically I agree with you. I don’t hate it at all, and considering the crap that’s come out of the series since season 9 I’d still say it’s in the better 50% of episodes, but it could have been executed better. I would have loved it to have been more meta in the typical Simpsons style – then this interesting experiment could have worked. But it ends up just getting an “eh” from me.

  4. I never once thought they were trying to be meta with this episode, I think that is a defense they copped to after the fact. There really is NO evidence in the episode itself — besides Snyder’s ruling — that this was supposed to be anything more than the writers trying to be smug and controversial and to drastically change things that didn’t need changing. It IS creative, in a way — don’t get me wrong there — but the show has had creative moments even in its Zombie years.. that doesn’t make it good.

    Ultimately, it doesn’t work as an experimental piece, doesn’t work as a drama, doesn’t work as a comedy… just doesn’t work. And they almost ruined Skinner, the best (imo) character on the show… who already had a pretty deep and interesting past before this fucked it up beyond belief.

    Just an insulting episode and completely worthless imo. And I’m a lot less negative than most people about this show (in fact, to me, this is the only worthless episode — not counting clip shows — until we get to the Bart-with-lizard-eggs episoe in season 10; I’d consider the show pretty perfect until here.. and there… and then from there, it’s pretty rocky from then on, isn’t it?).

  5. In all honesty, I never had a problem with this episode. I did not even know there was any controversy around it until Matt Groening’s introduction of the entire season DVD. I really do not see there being any problems, as it was funny, everything was returned to normal, etc. It is more of the later seasons that make this episode feel out of place since they do not even know their own continuity (one episode Lisa makes a joke about his name when she decides to just name her 5th new cat Snowball II, but then seasons later he talks about his childhood as if he was Agnus’ son). I thought it was interesting and fleshed out his character. He was still in Vietnam, he just took over someone else’s life, which I do not see where the problem is.

  6. “- Like the intro of the third act where the news crew continually irritate Brockman, first using the incorrect Skinner picture, then inserting the right one upside-down (“Idiots!”)”

    ………wow. I have never seen this scene, I don’t remember it from the original airing or any re-runs. I am going to go hunt for this now.

  7. I didn’t like this one when it first came on, but the episode didn’t turn me off to The Simpsons (that wouldn’t come until seasons 13 to 15) like a lot of viewers did when they first saw it. I still don’t like it, but listening to the DVD commentary on how Ken Keeler (episode writer), Bill Oakley, and Josh Weinstein loved the episode and did it as a test/experiment on whether or not they can change a long-running character and how fans would react to it (poorly, if fan opinion and what Matt Groening and Harry Shearer have said about it) gives me a newfound appreciation for writing TV stories this daring. Too bad this show would rather sell out than do something daring, whether or not it would screw up the canon.

  8. I was more bothered by this episode after listening to Keeler whine on the commentary for it. His voice is extremely irritating and fits with his pencil neck geek appearance. I thought he was full of shit about it being intended to be “meta” at all (a term I dislike anyway). (And, Lisa refers to him as Principal Tamzarian in a later episode, so it definitely happened.) It just seemed like they really despise their fans and enjoyed fucking us up the ass dry.

    The main problem I had with this was that it didn’t fit with what had already been established about Skinner and his mom: clearly, she raised him. With Hurricane Neddy, which I mostly liked, it doesn’t actually violate anything that had been established previously and the treatment that made him that way was obviously a part of their famous “flexible reality.” This one, though, just seemed like it took everything too seriously to just dismiss it. The writers definitely didn’t know what they were doing with this one.

    There were still very good episodes after it, so it didn’t jump with this one, but it’s definitely a low point. In the commentary, Keeler couldn’t keep his contempt for the fans out of his voice. I just thought “This nerd deserved every wedgie he ever got, he deserved it every time he was beat up or shoved in a locker.”

    1. >“This nerd deserved every wedgie he ever got, he deserved it every time he was beat up or shoved in a locker.”

      That’s what most of the writers on this show sound like and look like to me. At least the people behind South Park (Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Bill Hader), the Seth MacFarlane shows, Regular Show (J.G. Quintel), and The Amazing World of Gumball (Ben Bocquelet, Mic Graves, etc) look average-to-good looking.

    2. The writers’ contempt for longtime fans is so palpable in this season (and occasionally in Season 8). They really come off as entitled dicks who hate the people who’ve made their jobs possible

      I’m no fan of this episode, though i dont despise it because most of the jokes are still funny. (i love, “if I had known there was a war going on at the time, I would have just apologized.”)

  9. I don’t like this episode because I don’t think it goes far enough. If everything seems to revert back to the way it was, then what was even the point of this whole plot? The show never explored Skinner being an imposter again. Why go through the motions of making a big change to a key supporting character’s backstory if you’re not even gonna pretend to stick to those changes in later episodes?

    Just felt like an attempt at controversy for controversy’s sake….which of course, the show had already done better with the two-part Who Shot Mister Burns.

  10. So tonight was the fourth time I have actually watched this episode, and the first time I actually watched it consciously thinking about it, and throw me in the camp that hates it.

    The first act starts out pretty good as it’s funny, but then it falls apart from there. There were some solid ideas with Skinner being an imposter, yet, it just doesn’t work. Having watched the last 179 episodes at a much slower pace than I did before, it DOES completely contradict things that have been established. The re-enlisting in the episode where he gets fired, the stuff that occurs in “Springfield Confidential,” “Bart’s Comet,” and so on, don’t make sense now. Not to mention one of the episodes in the current season when he learns his mother lied to him about being rejected to Yale (or whatever school it was).

    The worst part, though, is the ending makes this episode utterly pointless. Why even bother having this big reveal when it ends up being irrelevant? Hurricane Neddy at least had a resolution. It may have been a half-assed one, but it was resolved. Here, nothing comes out of this. Also, is the train endless? Wouldn’t the real Skinner just be able to return the moment he was released from the train? Finally, as you asked Mike, what makes him so hated? Because he didn’t do what his mom told him to do? Oh no, how horrible!

    I can honestly say I understand why Matt Groening hates this episode to death. It may not be as terrible as Manatees, Serfsons, Man Who Grew, Boys of Bummer, Every Man’s Dream, or Paternity Coot, but it is definitely up there as being one of the worst and the first absolutely atrocious episode of the entire series.

  11. It’s been a while since I’ve watched this episode, but I don’t remember hating it. It’s not as awful as the episodes they would do in seasons ten and eleven, and there are some good jokes here, but it does feel like they went too far with the experimentation. If the show ended after season eight, I don’t think this episode would get so much hate because the writers can easily dismiss it as a self-parody or something like that, in the same way that “Homer’s Enemy” was. But then the show continued and became increasingly worse so everyone can point to this as the definitive beginning of the show’s decline. Plus, this is taken a little bit too seriously, instead of being more of an inside joke like “Spin-Off Showcase.”

    This episode could have potentially been a classic if the real Seymour Skinner was actually Skinner’s father. Then we could find out more about how his dad not being in his life that much or never encouraging him forced him to become closer to his mother. He could leave his position at Springfield Elementary because his father believed he was wasting his life, and then the townspeople could try convincing Skinner’s father that his son’s life has meaning because of how much pride he takes in his job as principal. It sounds exactly like the kind of episode they would have made around that time.

    Instead, they make this in an attempt to be experimental. It’s a shame too because this was the second-to-last episode of the Oakley & Weinstein era.

  12. What I didn’t like about it was that it marked the point where established and loved secondary characters simply became disposable plot devices. Since this point we’ve had Moe’s personality change constantly, Barney flip flop between coffee addict and alcoholic, etc.

    If the show doesn’t care about the characters, why should viewers?

  13. I still am not sure what exactly to think of this episode. There are a few funny moments, such as Ralph’s dream of being a caterpillar, Homer wanting to eat the cake, “If I knew there was a war going on, I probably would’ve apologized.”, and a few others. However, the story of this episode is a mess. The idea of Skinner being an imposter has so many logical issues with it, such as how nobody besides Agnes seems to have any connection to him. Not to mention, there’s his re-enlistment in the army in “Sweet Seymour Skinner”, as well as the fact that Sheldon Skinner from “Hellfish” looks exactly like him. Considering other characters’ fathers appeared in that episode, it showed the Skinner family had connections to others in Springfield.

    Another big issue is the convoluted mystery and backstory of Tamzarian. In other episodes wherein something big is revealed, such as Mother Simpson or Lisa the Iconoclast, the backstory is usually simple enough that they can keep it simple and milk many jokes out of them. Here, the mystery is so convoluted that it takes up a big part of the episode, and unlike the previous two, certain aspects that seem essential to the story aren’t dwelt on whatsoever. Why couldn’t we see Tamzarian with his real family back in Capital City? What about the real Skinner’s relationship with others in Springfield? Those are interesting avenues the episode could’ve taken, but didn’t. It’s also not helped that the convoluted story leaves little room for humor, which is a big issue because of my next point.

    Keeler’s defense of the episode is a big cop-out, too. Aside from Snyder’s ruling, there’s no hint that this episode is poking fun at the status quo. Maybe if the story wasn’t so complex they could’ve added other jokes in. Not to mention that Keeler’s point doesn’t hold up too well. He says that people don’t like change, but it’s not even true. Nobody complained when it was revealed that Homer had a long lost half-brother, or that his mother was a vigilante of some sort, and that’s because those didn’t change the cores of certain characters and actually made a fair amount of sense. What this episode did would be the equivalent of saying that one of the Simpson children was adopted or something (though that’d be even worse since there are flashback episodes showing that they aren’t adopted at all). In the end, there’s little humor, the satire isn’t obvious at all, the story is convoluted and makes little sense, and it puts kind of a cloud above Skinner’s character (any time his past is brought up I immediately think of this episode again). I wouldn’t call it the worst episode, but it’s pretty bad in my opinion.

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