Analysing The Most Hated Episode of The Simpsons

by thethreepennyguignol

If there’s one thing I never grow tired of talking about, it’s The Simpsons. I’ve been watching the show for the better part of thirty years now, and I’m still not tired of it – in it’s prime, it’s probably the best comedy ever made, and even as it started to go off the boil, it still managed to maintain the heart, wit, and edge that so many comedies could only dream of for a long time.

But that drop-off is pretty legendary; The Simpsons went from the best comedy show on TV to a synonym for dragging great mess that had long-since outlasted it’s welcome. While most people will agree that the shift from fantastic to incredible came pretty slowly, there’s one episode that’s widely seen as the moment the show really began it’s downfall – and that’s The Principal and the Pauper.

The second episode of the ninth season of The Simpsons, The Principal and the Pauper, was the beginning of the end of the golden age of the show in the eyes of many die-hard fans of the series. It reveals that long-time supporting character Principal Skinner is actually a fraud named Armin Tamzarian who stole the identity of a fellow Vietnam war veteran, living out his life in Springfield as the elementary school headmaster under the assumption the real Skinner was dead, only for original flavour Seymour to return to Springfield to reclaim his indetity.

Now, this is a really outrageously silly idea for an episode. But it’s not like The Simpsons hadn’t had plenty of dumb, often-outrageous stuff happen over the course of it’s run so far; by the time this episode came out, Krusty had faked his own death as part of an elaborate insurance scheme, Homer had gone to space, and the town as a whole agreed to murder Rex Banner by flinging him into kingdom come on a giant catapult. The Simpsons is an inherently ridiculous show, one that revels in its ability to jump into utter daftness totally unfettered by the constraints of reality. But none of these episodes were viewed through the same lens as The Principal and the Pauper (in fact some of them are considered unarguable examples of The Simpsons’ excellence), so what is it about this particular ridiculous premise that made it so instantly indicative of the show’s decline?

I think what really makes this stand out as an episode so lacking in what makes the show great is how un-grounded in the show’s reality it feels. Yes, The Simpsons was often ridiculous before this point, but it was a kind of ridiculousness that seemed logical to the characters the show put so much effort into crafting. Homer ending up in space is unassailably silly, but the episode puts in the work to make it fit into the show’s sense of reality. The Principal and the Pauper takes a character we’ve spent eight years getting to know, and then throws in a twist so utterly and completely out-of-line with what we know about them, it can’t help but feel like a bit of an insult to the viewer.

Pulling off stories with a level of silliness as high as The Simpsons requires the show to play by at least some rules, to make the comedy feel at least somewhat grounded, but this episode is a complete rejection of that. It feels cheap, thoughtless, compared to the carefully-crafted and character-driven brilliance of the earlier seasons of the show. Though Ken Keeler, Bill Oakley, and Josh Weinstein, who wrote and produced the episode, consider it a non-canonical story that should be treated as such, it’s hard not to see that as a bit of a backpedal, given it lacks the usual obvious framing that other gimmicky episodes of the show made use of (like the Halloween specials, for example).

But, even though I understand the contemporary view of the episode as a huge drop-off in the show’s quality, I’m not sure I agree with it marking the end of the Golden Age Simpsons. Watching the episode now, it’s hard to see this as the start of the end for the show. Even though it’s clearly pretty lazy, it’s still got a few great jokes and fun character moments, even if they’re far fewer and further between than we’re used to at this point in the show’s run. And the rest of season nine has some episodes I think are genuinely excellent (The Cartridge Family, Girly Edition, Lisa the Skeptic, to name a few). But there is an episode that marks the end of this era, for me, and it’s season eleven’s Saddlesore Galactica.

I’m not alone in hating this particular episode, and, in my eyes, it serves as a much better indication of how bad the show was going to be – and exactly how it was going to try to frame that badness. While The Principal and the Pauper is very rough, especially coming right off the excellence of season eight of the show, Saddlesore Galactica is downright awful – attempting to lampshade blatantly re-used plots with meta-references, relying on an absurd and in-show logic-breaking twist to pull together a third act, and generally relying on clumsy, stupid, and overused tropes. This is The Simpsons at it’s very worst, lazy and all too aware of it, but not actually concerned enough about that laziness to do anything to improve upon it. When it comes to the worst of the show, this is the version of it I hate the most, not the one The Principal and the Pauper represents (though it’s still surely far from the best of it). The Principal and the Pauper is a failed experiment, an attempt, though a bad one, at something new; Saddlesore Galactica is a cynical false start that never gets off the ground satisfied to acknowledge how little it’s even trying to.

What is the worst episode of the show in your eyes? When did the Golden Age of The Simpsons officially end, and is there an episode you can point to that marks the decline? Let me know in the comments below!

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(header image via Nerdist)