The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Nineteen, “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song”

When David Mirkin took over as showrunner, his main goal was to dig further into the characters that make up the town – to find out what really drives them, what makes them tick, what they will and won’t do. I think that’s one of the reasons the show has lasted so long, even (perhaps especially) as it got wackier during this era; cultural touchstones and expectations come and go, but Homer will be Homer forever. This is one of the most successful of this season’s character studies, following Bart’s nemesis Principal Seymour Skinner, and it’s a lot of fun in how it ties together a bunch of different Skinner jokes into a single coherent person. We’ve seen his mother, we’ve seen his service in Vietnam, and most of all we’ve seen how he’s a stickler for rules, discipline, and education; this episode throws all those traits at us in a single, strange human being, showing the underlying emotions that hold that guy together. Interestingly, it achieves that with typical Simpsons plotting; the traditional understanding of ‘character studies’ is slow-paced slice-of-life observational fly-on-the-wall plotting, stuff like Taxi Driver that follows a single human being through a typical day. There’s some of that here (I’ll get to that hilarious laundry scene in a second), but for the most part, this simply injects Skinner into a story and watches him reveal himself to us, and the most major fact immediately makes itself clear: Skinner is a giant dork.

That laundry scene (“I believe today I will try… Bold.”) is a really great individual expression of Skinner’s particular strain of the human condition. At Skinner’s centre is a genuine enthusiasm for Order – for things that work, and knowing how they work, and being able to make them work. In a lot of ways, Skinner is the swotty/nerdy kid all grown up, someone who finds pleasure in knowledge just for its own sake, in being able to be Correct about something even if that information never becomes useful – which is what leads him to put serious, hilarious amounts of contemplation into which cheap laundry powder he’ll use. Some of us who laugh at Skinner in that moment are really laughing at ourselves, at our own instincts turned sideways. What’s also great is the way that this also serves to characterise his position within the series as Bart’s nemesis, and in turn characterise Bart himself.

If Skinner is Order, Bart is Chaos. Bart chafes under rules and order; he’s Bugs Bunny, upsetting authority just on principle. As Lisa points out, any creature as iconic as Bart needs an opposite number, a delicious authority figure to take down, and Skinner could be the immovable object to his unstoppable force. Someone like Flanders, just as square but with no sense of authority is no fun for him to take down. Bart needs an intellectual equal who takes the game just as seriously as him. Beloved commentor wallflower once observed that there is no ownage without someone being owned, and he originally meant ‘inflicting great damage means someone has to get hurt’, but in this context the same phrase can have that meaning flipped over – great achievements require sufficiently great enemies. What Bart does wouldn’t be nearly as cool if he didn’t have someone smart enough to fight against.

I think that’s why they end up such great friends when their reason for antagonism falls away. As strange as it might seem, they’re intellectual equals, at least when it comes to the topic of school discipline, and when they’re just hanging out they have an easygoing rapport where it’s as if Skinner’s discipline and Bart’s imagination come together into a single unit as opposed to two clashing forces. When they work together to get Skinner his job back, it’s as tragic as it is sweet, because as Skinner notes, they’re effectively destroying their friendship by enacting it. At the same time, when they each pin a note to each other’s back, they’re reaffirming their particular take on the Wile E Coyote/Road Runner relationship; Bart will forever destroy all authority figures thrown at him, Skinner will forever try to teach Bart how to be a functional human being. I know it might seem weird coming from me, but I normally hate when people try to attribute greater depth to Road Runner cartoons, because to me it seems like projecting some interesting ideas onto something that just isn’t there, but it works here, because of the specific iconography we’re playing with. Every teacher will have a Bart, and every student will have a Skinner, and both groups need to respect the existence of the other.

Chalkboard Gag: I will not celebrate meaningless milestones.
Couch Gag: Homer spots the Fox logo in the corner, rips it off, and the family stomps on it.

This episode was written by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, and directed by Bob Anderson. Much of Skinner’s behaviour in this episode was based on teachers Oakley and Weinstein had. That chalkboard gag is inspired by the fact that this is the hundredth episode; I choose to follow in its example and lazily wave at the fact that this is therefore the hundredth essay.

I skipped right over it once again, but that whole first act is such a brilliant absurd riff on “bringing a dog to school always causes chaos”. We all have a story of that time a kid brought his dog to school, and it always feels at the time like a dog is licking a greased up Scotsman in the vents. Superintendent Chalmers’ little spiel on the decline of American public schools is depressingly relevant and cutting.

The title is a reference to the Martin Van Peebles movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Skinner’s quote “We’ll always have the laundromat,” is a reference to Casablanca. The opening shots of the home movies are a parody of The Wonder Years, complete with Joe Cocker’s version of “With A Little Help From My Friends”. Santa’s Little Helper running through the vents is a parody of Alien. Skinner says he was shot in the back trying to “get Joey Heatherton to put some pants on”. Shots from Skinner’s military days reference Full Metal Jacket. Skinner’s terrible novel rips off Jurassic Park. When Martin is in the cage, he sings the Toreador Song from Carmen, and as a former Martin I completely recognise how easily he falls into accepting his situation. Lisa compares Bart and Skinner to both Sherlock Holmes vs Professor Moriarty as well as Mountain Dew vs Mello Yello.

First Appearances: Baby Gerald (i.e. the baby with the one eyebrow), Luigi the Italian stereotype chef, Leopold the Assistant Superintendent (love the detail that he never opens his mouth fully when ‘angry’), Flanders lousy beatnik parents
Iconic Moments: 7! “I just think they’re neat.” | “It thinks it’s people!” | “Grease me up, woman!” | “Class after class of ugly, ugly children!” | “Billy and the Clonosaurus!” | “Done and done! And I mean done!” | “Prayer has no place within these walls, just like facts have no place within organised religion!”
Biggest Laugh: I really wanted to put the perfect delivery of “That’s not true, I can buy a new pair! No I can’t. I needed those. I really did” but unfortunately I’m a sucker for needlessly cruel absurdity: