The Simpsons, Season Nine, Episode Two, “The Principal And The Pauper”

I admit that this episode is a big part of why I wanted to continue on into season nine. How could you not talk about the single most controversial episode of the show? Much like “Homer’s Enemy”, its controversy comes from shattering a time-honoured Simpsons convention, but it goes even further; Frank Grimes can pass through and make his observations without destroying the fundamental  spirit of the show in a way the revelation of Armin Tamzarian’s past simply cannot. I’ve always liked “The Principal And The Pauper” more than most, but I 100% get the criticisms and frustrations with it; I think my pleasures with it come partially down to the fact that, as usual, the show becomes faster and funnier when it has something to say, even when that thing is wrong, and mostly because I’m the kind of guy who’ll write over a hundred and eighty thousand words on a three-decade-old cartoon and this episode in particular gives me a lot to think and write about. I know “The Principal And The Pauper” was written to explore the nature of status quo in a cartoon like this, but as a byproduct it ends up exploring the nature of personal identity and the way it interacts with community. Without spoiling, it’s common to joke that a certain plot point in Mad Men rips this off, but it genuinely dives into this idea with a very similar elegance, if not the same depth from sheer time spent exploring it. The first act neatly lays out Skinner’s motivations and relationship with the town as a whole: here is a man who is fastidious, completely lacking in guile, and takes pleasure in authority. Once he’s exposed as Armin Tamzarian, people’s faith in their understanding of him has been undermined to the point where even he doesn’t believe he can hold up the identity of Seymour Skinner anymore and chooses to return to being Armin Tamzarian.

Both Skinner and the town seem to hold identity exclusively as the actions that have made up one’s life and the resultant definition that comes with this. Skinner grew up in Springfield, served in Vietnam, and returned to Springfield to serve as elementary school principal; we can define him as War Hero and Educator and Dork; introducing ‘riding around in a motorcycle causing chaos’ and ‘theft of identity’ throws off his simple definitions and makes him more difficult to nail down, therefore making him untrustworthy. I think this is totally counter to how The Simpsons sees people, but rather than abandoning it like in “Homer’s Enemy”, it allows the characters to prove it correct – everyone, Skinner/Tamzarian and town alike, tries to work with what they assume is the natural order of things, and it turns out disastrously. From a Simpsons POV, people aren’t driven by their past actions, but by guiding principles; our weirdo protagonist is fastidious, lacking in guile, and authoritarian whether he’s elementary school principal Seymour Skinner or no good street punk Armin Tamzarian, and that gives him a specific chemistry with other Springfieldianites that another man, even one that can be described as a fastidious, guileless, authoritarian Vietnam vet cannot.

The problem, I think, is that most people really do see the world the first way. There is a very similar twist near the end of the first season of Community that I have never heard anyone raise a fuss about, and I think that came from the fact that it happened in the first season, when the show still had some flexibility in its identity; after eight years of Skinner being very cleanly defined as one particular thing in intimate detail, it can be frustrating to have that clear definition messed with. Being aware that you’re being annoying won’t undo being annoying. I love stuff that’s in-your-face about being experimental, but I’ve come to accept that, by its very nature, even if people get what you’re doing, they’re not going to care; generally, The Simpsons is great about making its experimentation accessible, and while this episode is hilarious (my biggest defence of the episode) and the plot is perfectly comprehensible, the basic idea for this story is all wrong for this audience at this time, and it’s deeply disrespectful.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family are in astronaut suits, and the couch blasts off.

This episode was written by Ken Keeler and directed by Steven Dean Moore. Keeler was inspired by the Tichborne case of 19th century England. I don’t research the episodes (read: look them up on Wikipedia) until after I write the main body of the essay, so I was delighted to find my read was exactly what was intended by Keeler, Bill Oakley, and Josh Weinstein, which I take as a sign that I’m smart, funny, and ridiculously good-looking, the whole god damned package. Martin Sheen guest stars as the real Seymour Skinner, and he’s wonderfully dorky in an old man way (“I really just came home to change into a turtleneck.”) that sets up his role in Grace And Frankie. Keeler borrowed the name Armin Tamzarian from a claims adjuster who helped him after a car accident; after the episode aired, Tamzarian wrote to him to ask what was up with that. Matt Groening and Harry Shearer would both come to criticise the episode.

“Weekly silhouette night” is such a wonderful, weirdly specific image. Also a great image: the transition to wartime, which I don’t think is a specific reference to any one thing but sells the horror of war oddly well considering the jokes around it. It’s a rare moment of me drawing attention to a serious moment in this section, but I love the moment of Tamzarian admitting he didn’t know why he chose to steal Skinner’s identity. Aside from selling how momentous a decision this was by slowing down the buildup to it, I enjoy when fictional characters simply can’t explain why they did something that felt intuitively right. I also enjoy that Agnes clearly understands this isn’t her real son, because I love when fictional relationships are these deeply weird things that shouldn’t work and yet do; Agnes needed someone to yell at and Armin needed someone to yell at him. Moving onto funny bits, there’s such a perfect moment of Skinner when he emphasises the wrong word in “They’re not even wearing a smile!”

The title is a reference to The Prince And The Pauper by Mark Twain.

Iconic Moments: 3. “Up yours, children!” | “Can I see your copy of Swank, Armen?” | “No one will ever mention it again, under penalty of torture.”
Biggest Laugh: