Do you have any idea what the most controversial episode of The Simpsons has been thus far? The one with guest voice done by renewed homosexual director John Waters where Homer Simpson goes Cheney over the possibility that Bart might turn out gay? Or how about the one where gay marriage is not only legalized but encouraged in Springfield? Surely the Simpsons episode where the whole family is imprisoned simply because Bart unwittingly bared his behind at the flag must rank high among the controversial episodes, right? Guess again. The single most controversial episode in the history of The Simpsons is the one where it is revealed that Springfield Elementary’s principal, Seymour Skinner, is not who he claims to be, but is, in fact, an imposter who has engaged in a very unique form of identity theft. The man that the townspeople had thought was Principal Skinner was actually, it turns out, a former street punk named Armin Tamzarian. Tamzarian slipped easily into the persona of the real Skinner when it was believed that that man had died during the Vietnam War.
The reason that this particular Simpsons episode is by far the most controversial is that in addition to the townspeople of Springfield being scammed, so were fans. Many fans who have ridiculously replaced their love of The Simpsons with the outright and second-rate plagiarism of Family Guy point to this particular episode as the beginning of the long downward slide of The Simpsons. In fact, while The Simpsons is hardly the perfect show it once was, it remains the most consistently well-written show on television and always has been. Sure, if the competition of 2007 was nearly up to the state of the competition in 1993 The Simpsons might have a run for its money, but when you compare the show to…well…anything else on television, for that reason if none other it is by far the best show on TV. The reason that so many fans find this episode to be irritating is that they completely missed the point.
The episode is titled “The Principal and the Pauper” and it can be found on the ninth season DVD. The commentary track on this episode should go a long way toward clearing up the venomous hatred that some fans direct toward it. The reason that so many people are disturbed by this Simpsons episode has to do with thefact that they completely miss the point. I am myself a huge fan of the film The Return of Martin Guerre, which the commentators adamantly point out was not the actual inspiration for the episode, but which is close enough to call that into question. Likewise, my first novel is about a guy who is routinely accepted as someone else despite the fact that he neither looks nor behaves like the person in question. In other words, I must immodestly admit that I got “The Principal and the Pauper” the first time it aired. I understood what the intention of this episode was about. Too many others do not.
To wit: During the commentary one of those involved suggests that he might have been taken aback to have found out that Mike Brady was not actually the real Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch. Fair enough. But immediately, the writer of this episode of the Simpsons counters with a very pointed retort: “Does it strike you as odd if you found that out about Mike Brady?” That is an excellent question and one that I bet almost never gets asked in the writing rooms of TV shows. When you think about it, it is really is odd that someone would get upset over the possibility that the real Mike Brady had been held hostage in the Soviet Union and that that nice guy we all wanted for our own dad was a fake.
He’s a character on a TV show!
What The Principal and the Pauper is really about is not the story of Armin Tamzarian and Seymour Skinner. It is about the fact that not just the people of Springfield, but so many millions of viewers of the Simpsons are so resistant to change and the introduction of something really unique-and entirely plausible-that something deep down inside them is offended. The discourse during the commentary track also goes on to suggest that this kind of close attachment between viewer and character very often derails an actor’s career. Tom Bosley will always be known as Mr. Cunningham; David Caruso was so identified with his character on NYPD Blue that his movie career sank and he returned to the small screen essentially playing the same character on a different show. Another insightful quote from the writer of this episode: “It’s a strange thing about humanity that they become more attached to unreal things.”
It doesn’t stop with characters; this idea can extend to the cult of celebrity. How many people have cried more over the death of Elvis Presley or Princess Diana than cried over the death of an aunt or uncle or friend? The Simpsons did an episode before this that touched on many of the same concepts; the episode that briefly introduced Poochie into the world of Itchy and Scratchy. But that was a cartoon with a show and it was quite obvious that the show was making fun of the long, demented history of TV shows that are sliding downward attempting to perk up interest by introducing a brand new character into the mix. What the Principal and the Pauper did that was so dangerous was not make it immediately obvious that this was a sharply pointed attack on the kind of fan whose attachment to characters-even a secondary character like Principal Skinner-obstructs their ability to accept change. If you are a Simpsons fan who hates this episode, deep down inside your problem is not that Armin Tamzarian can never be spoken of again; it’s that you take the back story of Seymour Skinner far too seriously.