“Marge, everybody’s looking at us.” – Homer Simpson
Season 9 was laboring under a lot of burdens: a new show runner in Mike Scully, a writers’ room at an all time low in terms of experience, and an ever increasing load of backstory, plots, and ideas that had already been done. To get the episodes made, the show began cutting corners, mostly by growing increasingly unconcerned about whether or not the stories made any sense and whether or not the characters acted at all like themselves.
The Simpsons had long produced finely crafted storytelling that gave each of an episode’s principal characters something to do and wrapped up every plot thread. Those elements were left by the wayside in several Season 9 episodes, mostly as a way to skip over plot holes and cram characters into bizarre situations. This is how Lisa and Homer break into a museum by climbing modern art, how Marge and Homer find themselves naked in a hot air balloon that lands in a stadium, and how Bart and Homer end up running a carnival game and playing ring toss for the mortgage. There’s a certain Ralph Kramden zaniness to those things, but whatever one thinks of them, they are far removed from what made the show great.
It’s not incidental that all three of those examples involve Homer. Season 9 saw the show drop him into any situation on the flimsiest of pretenses. He flies to Cuba with Mr. Burns. He climbs the tallest mountain in the world. He crashes Moe’s car into a river to collect the insurance money, swims out from the depths, and then breaks out of jail. Those episodes don’t so much have plot holes as they do plot canyons, where things that make no sense are either studiously ignored or conjured out of nowhere to drag things to a resolution.
To be sure, there are a lot of good episodes in Season 9, but even then chases and weird endings abound. In Season 9 alone, the following are used as endings:
- High speed car fight between Homer and Snake that ends with them crashing into a house.
- A fake apocalypse about a stone angel that makes so little sense they had to retcon27 their own Stephen Jay Gould guest cameo in the same episode.
- Homer becoming the commander of a submarine and ending up being chased down by no fewer than four navies.
- Bart and Ralph breaking into an abandoned prison where they briefly follow a rat who has literally stolen the plot.
- An explosion of underground garbage that forces the entire town to be moved in just the last minute of the episode.
- After the kids somehow get stranded on a deserted island, the episode doesn’t even bother to end; it just says they were rescued in a voiceover.
The show had certainly done episodes with outrageous endings before, but generally only once or twice per season, and even then things weren’t played for tension or shock the way they often are in Season 9. (Homer’s shuttle reentry in Season 5 is a perfect example of something that was played wholly for humor where later seasons would have put suspense.) Not only were the stories becoming ever more outlandish, they often wrapped up in ways that left the audience scratching its head. Wild turns of fate became common.
The most well known of those is the infamous “The Principal and the Pauper”, perhaps better known as the Armin Tamzarian episode, or just the one with two Principal Skinners. In a twist that’s more than a little reminiscent of the kind of shocking revelations that are often used to prop up dying shows, the real Seymour Skinner returns from being a prisoner of war to find that one of his men had come back from Vietnam and assumed his identity. That man, the upright public servant known to the audience since Season 1, is revealed to be “an imposter” named Armin Tamzarian. Much gasping and exposition ensue.
There’s no real mystery as to why this episode is so widely reviled. Not only does it contradict many things that had been shown about Principal Skinner in the past, but the episode is so thick with abrupt plot twists, expository flashbacks, and unbelievable character turns that there’s hardly any humor to it. The dialogue that just a few years before had been packed with punchlines, observations and jokes had been reduced to the kind of cheap filler better suited to a movie of the week. Instead of fun and funny situations and ideas, there is an excess of heart-to-heart moments and earnest conversations. And, befitting Season 9, there’s a bizarre ending.
To his credit, Ken Keeler, who wrote “The Principal and the Pauper”, used his appearance on the DVD commentary to rebut the longstanding complaints of fans about this episode. (This is in stark contrast to later commentaries which are often filled with awkward silences and unrelated tangents when the episodes begin to disintegrate.) His defense was basically to say that people get too attached to long running fictional characters. Whatever the truth of that, Keeler is certainly right that Principal Skinner had been on television a long time by that point.
As one of the original Season 1 characters, Skinner/Tamzarian had been known to audiences for almost eight years by the time “The Principal and the Pauper” was broadcast in 1997. That’s quite a stretch of time, both culturally and individually. It’s a full two-term presidency; it’s someone’s entire trip through junior high and high school. A person born the day The Simpsons premiered would’ve been old enough to watch and understand most of “The Principal and the Pauper”.
In those years, Skinner had, among other things, been fired, rejoined the army, seen his school strike oil, settled a teacher’s strike, flashed back to Vietnam several times, and fallen in love in two separate episodes. At some point, there just isn’t a lot left to do with a particular character, and that more than anything explains why both the “imposter” storyline was conceived and why it was so universally loathed. The writers were out of ideas, and the fans were attached to what they already knew. In hindsight, an episode where the two crashed head-on seems almost inevitable.
Continue to Chapter 10: Jerkass Homer Gets a Job.
Notes and Sources