The premise: Superintendent Chalmers is scheduled to speak at an administrator’s conference in Cincinnati and is dispirited when he ends up having to take Skinner with him. Their road trip proves to be calamitous, but the two end up growing fonder of each other along the way.
The reaction: One of my biggest wants over the past fifteen or so years for this show is for them to explore their enormous roster of secondary characters. I think we’ve had enough Homer and Lisa shows for one lifetime, why not give us some variety and feature Ned Flanders, or Mayor Quimby, or in this case, Skinner and the Superintendent? Just like Comic Book Guy going to Comic-Con, a story with Skinner and Chalmers together feels like a promising idea, one I was genuinely curious going in as to how they would execute it. While it definitely felt novel to have an episode that barely featured the Simpsons at all, I was ultimately disappointed as to how bland and unambitious the episode ended up being. If you’ve seen any road trip comedy featuring two mismatched protagonists, you can basically predict the story beats here: the two bicker, meet up with odd characters and get into wacky shenanigans, one or two token acts bring them closer, a secret is revealed leading to a falling out, then a tearful reconciliation and everything is a-OK by the end. That’s not to say a traditional story can’t be engaging or fun to watch, but there’s not enough unique here that really kept my attention. Skinner resolves to have more backbone and be more proactive in getting on Chalmers’ good side, and his kindness and quick thinking gets the two out of a few jams, which helps to make Chalmers grow more fond of him. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like we learn a lot about these two during their trip. We see Chalmers freaking out about air travel, getting them kicked off the plane, but that never really develops into anything. Skinner finally standing up for himself to Chalmers feels a little cathartic, but feels a little empty since there’s no real stakes for him in the episode. He tags along with Chalmers not for a promotion or a pay raise, he just wants to be his friend, I guess. This show has actually had some success in the past few years in showcasing new and different shades of our familiar characters (Mr. Largo and his partner’s domestic life, Krusty’s dream of filming an “unfilmable” adaptation of a sci-fi story), it’s just a bummer that this episode entirely focused on not-the-Simpsons feels so rote and formulaic.
Three items of note:
– In an episode where the Simpsons barely appear, it was interesting seeing how the rest of the cast were given some rare token roles. Dan Castellaneta plays the Missouri sheriff, though he typically plays a lot of non-Homer roles per episode. Yeardley Smith gets a lot of lines as one of the improv Shakespeare performers Skinner and Chalmers pick up. And, something I didn’t notice before the credits revealed it, Julie Kavner performed the turkey on the airplane that freaks Chalmers out, and pretty well, I might add. She also gets a decent sized bit as Marge in the tag of the episode, so don’t worry, all of our regular performers definitely earned their large paychecks for this episode.
– Attached to the episode description I read somewhere, it also mentioned that there would be a steamed hams reference, which instantly made me cringe. I feel like the genesis of this episode was inspired by the explosion of the Steamed Hams meme, so I was preparing for the worst, most on-the-nose callback ever. However, the reference ended up simply being a Steamed Hams restaurant they drive by, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background sign. I was surprised by the restraint.
– If it’s one thing this show is unable to do anymore, it’s balancing genuine sentimentality with a snarky twist, something that really made this series shine in its heyday. Now, happy endings are played 100% straight, and even if they feel earned, they feel like they belong in a completely different show. Here, Skinner races back to Cincinnati to get Chalmers his cue cards for his speech while Chalmers riffs on stage about how lame Skinner is, before slowly realizing he actually cares for him (“God help me, I respect Seymour Skinner! In fact, I like him!”) The two have a tearful hug and Chalmers gives his speech uninterrupted. It literally feels like something out of a bad movie, with no attempt at adding anything new on top of it. Maybe Chalmers’ speech goes terribly? The two get kicked out? Some other crazy thing happens? You can still have your sweet moment and have it land meaningfully, but there’s got to be more to it.