The Principal and the Pauper
"The Principal and the Pauper" is the second episode of The Simpsons' ninth season. It first aired on the Fox network in the United States on September 28, 1997. In the episode, Seymour Skinner begins to celebrate his twentieth anniversary as principal of Springfield Elementary School when a man arrives claiming that Skinner has assumed his identity. Principal Skinner admits that his real name is Armin Tamzarian, and that he had thought the true Seymour Skinner, a friend from the army, had died in the Vietnam War. Armin leaves Springfield, but is persuaded to return later in the episode. The episode was written by Ken Keeler and was directed by Steven Dean Moore. It guest starred Martin Sheen as the real Seymour Skinner. Although it aired during the show's ninth season, it was produced by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein as part of the season eight batch.
"The Principal and the Pauper" is one of the most controversial episodes of The Simpsons. Many fans and critics reacted negatively to the revelation that Principal Skinner, a recurring character since the first season, was an impostor. The episode has been criticized by series creator Matt Groening and by Harry Shearer, who provides the voice of Principal Skinner. Despite this, Ken Keeler considers the episode the best work he has ever done for television. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein have also defended the episode.
On the eve of his twentieth anniversary as school principal, Seymour Skinner is lured by his mother to Springfield Elementary School for a surprise party. The celebration goes well until a strange man arrives, claiming to be the real Seymour Skinner. Principal Skinner soon admits that he is an impostor, and that his real name is Armin Tamzarian. Armin then tells the story of the events that led him to steal Seymour Skinner's identity.
Armin was once a troubled young man. He stole an old woman's purse and, while making his getaway on his motorcycle, hit a pedestrian who happened to be a judge. As punishment, Armin had to join the Army and fight in the Vietnam War, go to jail, or apologize to the judge and the old woman. Skinner decided to join the army, not knowing the country was in a middle of war. There he met and befriended the real Sergeant Seymour Skinner, who became his mentor and helped him find meaning in his troubled life. Seymour told Armin that his dream was to become an elementary school principal after the war. Later, Seymour was declared missing and presumed dead after he was caught in an explosion. Armin took the news of the apparent death to Seymour's mother, Agnes. Upon meeting him, however, Agnes mistook him for her son, and Armin could not bear to deliver the message. He instead allowed Agnes to call him Seymour, and took over Seymour's life. Meanwhile, the real Seymour Skinner spent five years in a POW camp, then worked in a Chinese sweatshop for two decades until it was shut down by the United Nations.
After these revelations, the people of Springfield begin to distrust Armin. Armin decides that there is no longer any place for him in Springfield, and retires from his job. The real Skinner is then offered the chance to realize his dream and take over as school principal. He takes the job, but the real Skinner finds himself isolated by the townspeople after rudely berating Bart for insulting the Pledge of Allegiance. It turns out the people realize that they prefer Armin over him. Even Agnes Skinner misses Armin, since she had lived with him for 26 years, and does not believe her actual son still needs her. Armin, however, has already left Springfield and gone to Capital City.
Marge heads to Capital City with Edna Krabappel, Agnes and the rest of the Simpson family. Armin refuses to return home, stating they have the real Skinner. However, Agnes refuses to acknowledge it, stating that she depended on Armin and her real son was rude to her. After Agnes orders Armin to return home, Homer persuades Mayor Quimby and all the other citizens to allow Armin to resume his assumed identity as Principal Skinner. The real Skinner is unhappy about this, and refuses to give up his job and his dignity just because the people of Springfield prefer Armin to him. In response, the townspeople banish the real Skinner from town by tying him to a chair on a flatcar of a freight train. Judge Snyder declares that Armin will again be referred to as Seymour Skinner, that he will return to his job as school principal, and that no one shall mention the name "Armin Tamzarian" again, under penalty of torture.
"The Principal and the Pauper" was the last episode of The Simpsons written by Ken Keeler, who also pitched the original idea for the episode. Many fans believe the episode is based on the story of Martin Guerre or the 1993 film Sommersby. According to animation director Steve Moore, one of the working titles for the episode was "Skinnersby". However, Keeler has said he was inspired by the Tichborne Case of nineteenth century England. The episode's official title is a reference to the book The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain.
Producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein were excited about the episode because Principal Skinner was one of their favorite characters. The pair had already written the season five episode "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song", which was an in-depth study of the character. Oakley said he and Weinstein "spent a month immersed in the mind of Seymour Skinner" to prepare that episode, and from that point forward, took every opportunity to "tinker with [Skinner's] personality and his backstory and his homelife".
Describing the real Seymour Skinner, Keeler remarked, "It would have been easy to make him a really horrible, nasty, dislikeable guy, but we didn't do that. We made him just not quite right, not quite Skinner, and a little bit off." Bill Oakley said the idea behind the character was that he "just lacked pizzazz". The producers selected Martin Sheen to voice the character because they admired his performance in Apocalypse Now and felt his voice would be appropriate for a Vietnam veteran.
Keeler borrowed the name Armin Tamzarian from a claims adjuster who had assisted him after a car accident when he moved to Los Angeles. However, the real Tamzarian was unaware his name was being used until after the episode aired. Keeler said he later received a "curtly phrased" letter from Tamzarian, who wanted to know why his name appeared in the episode. Keeler feared he would face legal troubles, but afterwards, Tamzarian explained that he was simply curious and did not intend to scare anyone.
"The Principal and the Pauper" finished 41st in the United States in the ratings for the week of September 22–28, 1997, with a Nielsen rating of 9.2. The episode was the second highest rated show on the Fox network that week, following King of the Hill. The Fox network's ratings average for the week was 6.4.
The revelation that Principal Skinner was an impostor and the self-referential deus ex machina ending were negatively received by many fans and critics. Skinner had been a recurring character since the first season and, after years of development, his backstory had suddenly been changed. Bill Oakley considers "The Principal and the Pauper" the most controversial episode from his tenure as executive producer.
In his book Planet Simpson, Chris Turner describes "The Principal and the Pauper" as the "broadcast that marked [the] abrupt plunge" from The Simpsons' "Golden Age", which he says began in the middle of the show's third season. He calls the episode "[one of] the weakest episodes in Simpsons history", and adds, "A blatant, continuity-scrambling plot twist of this sort might've been forgivable if the result had been as funny or sharply satirical as the classics of the Golden Age, but alas it's emphatically not." Turner notes that the episode "still sports a couple of virtuoso gags", but says that such moments are limited.
In a 2007 article in The Guardian, Ian Jones argues that the "show became stupid" in 1997, pointing to "The Principal and the Pauper" as the bellwether. "Come again? A major character in a long-running series gets unmasked as a fraud? It was cheap, idle storytelling," he remarks. In a 2006 article in The Star-Ledger, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz cite the episode when asserting that the quality of The Simpsons "gets much spottier" in season nine. Alan Sepinwall observes in another Star-Ledger article, "[The episode] was so implausible that even the characters were disavowing it by the end of the episode." Jon Hein, who coined the term "jumping the shark" to refer to negative changes in television series, writes in Jump the Shark: TV Edition, "We finally spotted a fin at the start of the ninth season when Principal Skinner's true identity was revealed as Armin Tamzarian." James Greene of Nerve.com put the episode fifth on his list "Ten Times The Simpsons Jumped the Shark", calling it a "nonsensical meta-comedy" and arguing that it "seemed to betray the reality of the show itself".
In contrast, Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood, the authors of I Can't Believe It's a Bigger and Better Updated Unofficial Simpsons Guide, have praised the episode, calling it "one of the series' all-time best episodes, mainly because it shows us a human side, not just of Principal Skinner, but of his hectorish [sic] Mom as well." They add that "Martin Sheen steals the show [...] in a brief but important slice of Simpsons history." Total Film's Nathan Ditum named Martin Sheen's performance in the episode the 20th best guest appearance on The Simpsons.
Reaction from the cast and crew
Ken Keeler, Bill Oakley, and Josh Weinstein all defend the episode in its DVD commentary. Keeler asserts, "I am very, very proud of the job I did on this episode. This is the best episode of television I feel I ever wrote." He describes the episode as a commentary on "people who like things just the way they are," and remarks, "It never seems to have occurred to anyone that this episode is about the people who hate it." However, Keeler says that some of the dialogue was changed from his original draft, making this point less obvious. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein explain that they wanted to push the boundaries of the series while working as show-runners, and advise viewers to treat "The Principal and the Pauper" as an "experiment." They surmise that the negative reception was partly due to the fact that it was not immediately apparent to viewers that this was such an episode (as opposed to, for example, "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase"). They also describe the ending of the episode as an attempt to reset the continuity and allow fans to consider the episode as non-canonical, divorced from the larger series.
Other figures associated with The Simpsons have publicly criticized the episode. In a 2001 interview, Harry Shearer, the voice of Principal Skinner, recalled that after reading the script, he told the writers, "That's so wrong. You're taking something that an audience has built eight years or nine years of investment in and just tossed it in the trash can for no good reason, for a story we've done before with other characters. It's so arbitrary and gratuitous, and it's disrespectful to the audience." In a later interview, Shearer added, "Now, [the writers] refuse to talk about it. They realize it was a horrible mistake. They never mention it. It's like they're punishing [the audience] for paying attention." In the introduction to the ninth season DVD boxset, series creator Matt Groening describes "The Principal and the Pauper" as "one of [his] least favorite episodes." He also called the episode "a mistake" in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Later episodes of The Simpsons contain references to "The Principal and the Pauper." A clip from the episode was used in season eleven's "Behind the Laughter" as an example of the show's increasingly "gimmicky and nonsensical plots." In the season fifteen episode "I, (Annoyed Grunt)-Bot," Lisa addresses Principal Skinner as "Principal Tamzarian" when Skinner chides her for naming her new cat Snowball, after a cat that had died earlier in the episode.
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- "The Principal and the Pauper" at The Simpsons.com
- "The Principal and the Pauper" episode capsule at The Simpsons Archive
- "The Principal and the Pauper" at the Internet Movie Database