“Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Capital City’s nakedest ladies. They’re not even wearing a smile. Nod suggestively. Yes, six, count ’em, six gorgeous ladies just dying for your leers and catcalls. Yowza. Yowza.” – Whatever the Hell His Name Is In This Episode
There’s new Zombie Simpsons Sunday, so this is the last of our summer series overthinking Season 9. Why Season 9? Because we did Season 8 last summer, and Season 9 was when the show started becoming more Zombie than Simpsons. Since we’re too lazy to do audio and too ugly to do video, we’ve booked a “chatroom” (ours is right between the one with the sexy seventh graders and the one with the bored federal agents pretending to be sexy seventh graders). So log on to your dial-up AOL and join us. This text has been edited for clarity and spelling (especially on “bludgeoning”).
Today’s episode is 902 “The Principal and the Pauper”. Yesterday was 918 “This Little Wiggy”. In a return visit, Bob Mackey joined us this week.
Charlie Sweatpants: I had not seen this one in many years, maybe a decade or more, and I was hoping that there was some redeeming value to it. But there isn’t. The terrible plot is 95% of the screen time.
bobservo: Well, this might get me kicked out the The Simpsons Cool Kids Club, but I love Principal Skinner and I didn’t hate this episode.
Charlie Sweatpants: There’s your shocking revelation, kids.
Dave: Uh oh.
bobservo: I’ll admit that it has some problems, but I never viewed it as some sort of awful turning point or notorious or anything like that.
Charlie Sweatpants: Let him explain, then we’ll kick him out of the Simpsons Cool Kids Club.
bobservo: But I can fully understand why people don’t like it.
Mad Jon: In fairness to Bob, Skinner is the brightest star in this particular sky. Even though the plot is completely from a different ball game, changes many, MANY things I know and love about him, and is impossible not to think about when he does/says anything from now on that references his past, Skinner pulls it off as Skinner, not a shell of him, like most Zombie characters become.
bobservo: My take on this episode is that it doesn’t change who Skinner is one bit; sure, they build a little onto his history, but it helps to better explain his character and possibly his relationship with his mother. I’ll admit that this story wasn’t at all necessary, but I enjoyed it.
Charlie Sweatpants: Disagree. If Skinner were himself, why did he go back to Capital City? Why did he abandon Krabappel?
The "changing Skinner" thing isn’t the main problem. The main problem is that this one devotes such an enormous amount of time to revelations and awkward scenes that are not the show’s strong suit.
bobservo: Also, much like Homer’s Enemy, this is secretly a show about television. If you listen to the commentary, Ken Keeler wrote it fully intending to tackle the subject of how TV audiences deal with change. It’s pretty interesting when viewed through that lens, and it probably worked a little too well in that respect.
Charlie Sweatpants: Even the opening, before Martin Sheen’s cardboard cutout of a character arrives, is almost joke free. It’s one long extended audience bludgeoning about how much everyone loves Skinner.
I’ve heard about Keeler’s commentary, have not listened to it, so maybe I need to do that.
But whereas I can buy "Homer’s Enemy" as a comment on what came before it, this one doesn’t have a scene like Homer showing off his Grammy that has that wink to the audience.
bobservo: Well, I agree that his commentary was too subtle.
I didn’t even realize what the episode was trying to say before listening to the commentary track.
Charlie Sweatpants: Not a good sign.
Mad Jon: There is definitely an issue when I have to watch commentary to enjoy the episode. Ugh.
bobservo: But I guess in retrospect I enjoy this episode because it’s nice to see Skinner at least afforded a little dignity — in a handful of years he’d literally be making out with a corpse.
Mad Jon: Not that commentary from God himself could make me enjoy this one.
Charlie Sweatpants: Wow, when did he make out with a corpse?
bobservo: Also it’s kind of alarming to see an episode confident enough to have a single plot, and able to lapse into sentimentality without being cloying.
In the later years they took a full shotgun-to-the-face approach to sentimentality, and it always felt like a cheap attempt to copy James L. Brooks.
Charlie Sweatpants: I’d say it started before this, but my feelings on "Marge Be Not Proud" are well documented.
Dave: They certainly are.
Mad Jon: In some legal documents as well I believe.
Charlie Sweatpants: But it was a downward trend. It’s remarkable how quickly they used to wrap up "I love you guys" plots and how long it takes them now.
Getting back to why this doesn’t play for a second, Grimes works on a basic level because even the first time you see it you recognize that he’s the opposite of Homer. The real Skinner, on the other hand, is hardly a character at all. The greatest crime he commits is borrowing his mother’s car keys.
The town’s rejection of him is just another in a series of far fetched overreactions.
bobservo: Well I agree that the commentary is far too subtle to work effectively.
Mad Jon: Until I watched it earlier, I couldn’t remember how he wound up at the celebration to begin with. I thought he just showed up for no reason whatsoever.
bobservo: And there should have been some greater realization as to why they needed the real (fake) Skinner back.
Dave: Other than a wholesale way to tie up loose ends, you mean.
Charlie Sweatpants: But what is it a commentary on? Granted I haven’t heard Keeler’s defense, but characters developing is one thing, inventing a whole backstory only to drop it in another "hey aren’t we lazy and isn’t that funny" ending is quite another.
bobservo: I would definitely listen to it.
It probably won’t make you like the episode, but it’ll give you a different perspective on it.
Charlie Sweatpants: Possibly. I do try to keep an open mind. However, it won’t change the fact that most of this episode is revelation. Maybe I’m not in on the arch-joke, but the complete lack of regular ones hardly means that there can’t be an underlying theme.
Mad Jon: Even a decent meta statement can’t make up for a comedy episode with no jokes.
Charlie Sweatpants: It just feels like they locked themselves into this weird story and telling it took so much time that they didn’t have anything left.
bobservo: It is a quieter episode, but I think it shows a lot of self-control in that they didn’t have a B-Plot with Homer inventing a time machine or some such garbage.
Again, I don’t think it’s a perfect episode, and I don’t watch it that often, but I don’t hate it.
And I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Skinner may be my favorite character.
Charlie Sweatpants: I can’t give them credit for leaving out a B-plot when they could barely cram all the back and forth into the A. The whole thing is so serious that even the aside jokes don’t play. It’s like putting a wacky roommate into Sophie’s Choice or Cider House Rules.
bobservo: It was really after the Scully years that he was only trotted out for episodes with Edna, and they did an excellent job of ruining that.
Charlie Sweatpants: I’ll agree with that.
I’m a big believe that "Principal Charming" is a massively underrated episode.
bobservo: So my lack of hate for this episode could just be that I miss Skinner.
But I was never outraged at the time.
Charlie Sweatpants: I’ll admit that I was.
Mad Jon: I don’t remember being outraged either. But I do recall feeling confused and ashamed.
Charlie Sweatpants: Season 8, which looks so good in hindsight, felt very hit and miss at the time. And when this was the second episode of the next season, it did have that death knell feeling.
Jon’s right, outrage isn’t right, confusion and shame are definitely the standard Zombie Simpsons emotions.
bobservo: Well, I kind of get the feeling that O&W were generally trying to tie things up.
Charlie Sweatpants: This one just felt bad, like, "How low are they going to go?"
Agreed with tying things up.
bobservo: In that they thought they show couldn’t go on for much longer, so why not experiment.
Charlie Sweatpants: Exactly.
bobservo: Of course they might have gone too far with this one.
Mad Jon: Well, you might as well swing for the fences, but if you strike out you generally have to go back to the bench.
Charlie Sweatpants: We’ve come to that point a lot in these Season 9 discussions. If this had been the last or even penultimate season, a lot of bad feelings would’ve been spared.
bobservo: But if you listen to their commentaries, they openly admit they felt they show would be ending soon.
A lot of their episodes really dole out Springfield and character mythology.
Charlie Sweatpants: It’s impossible not to watch things like this without the knowledge that it’s gone on for thirteen more years and counting, to no real purpose other than the greater glory of merchandising rights.
bobservo: Like Jebediah was a fraud, Roger Myers didn’t really create Itchy and Scratchy, etc.
Charlie Sweatpants: I’ve never thought of it that way, but I can see that.
bobservo: I think this episode was an extension of that, but maybe they were toying with too beloved of a character.
Charlie Sweatpants: "Lisa the Iconoclast" is one of the most huggably cynical episodes they ever did. This one doesn’t seem to have any greater point.
bobservo: I guess also in Iconoclast Lisa saw people were happier with the lie; I guess that’s the same basic point in Pauper.
Though it could have been done much better.
Iconoclast is one of my favorite episodes, so I could be biased.
Charlie Sweatpants: I don’t think this one could’ve been done better. "Lisa the Iconoclast" took someone who wasn’t really a character but more of a beloved symbol and tore him apart. Tearing apart sacred cows is what this show did best.
Skinner was a fully formed character and that’s why it doesn’t play as well. They’re laboring under all that history, including his being a Vietnam vet and his time at the school, whereas with Jebediah they had an almost blank slate with which to work.
bobservo: Well I agree with that; they probably didn’t realize Skinner was so beloved.
Mad Jon: And the aftermath with Jebediah is a drop in the bucket compared to what they would have to work with in future Skinner.
bobservo: Also, Oakley and Weinstein wanted to get rid of a character on the show permanently.
Mad Jon: Like a snuff episode?
Charlie Sweatpants: Were they going to do that here and chickened out after it had already been animated?
bobservo: For Who Shot Mr. Burns, they wanted to make the killer Barney and take him out of the show after that (presumably in jail).
Charlie Sweatpants: Never heard that, but I’m a late comer to the behind the scenes stuff.
bobservo: Though that could have been a case of "we’re running out of drunk jokes."
Charlie Sweatpants: Ah.
bobservo: So I think they loved experimenting, shaking things up, etc.
More in their first season than in their second.
But I still respect them for trying.
FYI I found the end of Skinner and Edna’s relationship was far more insulting and infuriating than this episode.
Charlie Sweatpants: Okay . . .
Mad Jon: That episode where she almost marries Comic book guy?
bobservo: If I remember correctly, I think she did.
Charlie Sweatpants: Wait, that was Agnes, not Edna.
Mad Jon: No, Edna did it first.
Charlie Sweatpants: Really?
bobservo: No, it was called "My Big Fat Geek Wedding."
Mad Jon: That was the episode where he uses Klingon to say " I would kill the children of a thousand planets just to see you smile."
Charlie Sweatpants: Yeah, but that was Season 15.
Mad Jon: You must have looked that up.
bobservo: Yeah, and then Grandpa married Selma?
Charlie Sweatpants: I have the internet on my computer.
bobservo: I just like to bring that up because people think it’s not real.
Charlie Sweatpants: Guh. I’m so glad I haven’t seen all of those.
Mad Jon: Wedding, after wedding after wedding!
Mad Jon: And did somebody say long lost triplets?
Charlie Sweatpants: And a tiny green alien named Ozmodiar that only Homer can see?
bobservo: Wait for season 24.
Charlie Sweatpants: But none of those later atrocities change the fact that they really stepped in it here. The Vietnam flashback was as rote as any Vietnam flashback in television history: times were tough, but I learned something.
Compare that to – again – "I Love Lisa" where Bart breaks Skinner’s brain. That was a subversive flashback. This one was routine.
bobservo: I agree, it would have been nice to see Skinner develop some of his fastidiousness back in ‘Nam.
Charlie Sweatpants: Okay, I’ll admit that I’m just pilfering my notes now, but for one more example of the weakness of the non-plot humor, Brockman has that scene where he gets flustered by technical screw ups, and it’s not nearly as good as the one from "Lisa the Beauty Queen" where he walks off and tells them to get the weekend guy.
Mad Jon: That was quite unnecessary. I was definitely waiting for the follow up joke.
Charlie Sweatpants: And then there’s Skinner, riding off to Capital City yelling "Up yours children" instead of "Eat my shorts, young man"
bobservo: I don’t really know about the production history of this episode, but even though it was held over it might have come in too late for anyone to care.
I do agree that it needs some punching up
Actually, Homer only has a few lines in this one, and they’re completely disposable.
Charlie Sweatpants: His are some of the few I enjoy. His love of cake and pornography is a ray of sunshine on an otherwise cloudy day.
Okay, I think we’re kinda spent, and the only conclusion I’ve come to is that I need to listen to the commentary.
bobservo: So, am I now banned from DHS?
Charlie Sweatpants: Not at all.
bobservo: …for three months?
Charlie Sweatpants: Excellent usage.
bobservo: Okay, whee.
Charlie Sweatpants: Though now I do have to listen to another commentary on account of you.
Maybe one month.
bobservo: That’s fair.
But I regret nothing.
Mad Jon: Good, your insight is much more stimulating than my bitching.
Although I do enjoy bitching.
bobservo: I do what I can.
Charlie Sweatpants: Well, I guess that’s it. Bob, thanks again. Your dedication to actually studying this show before publicly lambasting it has once again provided an example I shall strive to ignore.
bobservo: Glad to be of service.