‘The Principal and the Pauper’ was the second episode of the ninth season of ‘The Simpsons’ and the 180th produced overall. It is regarded by fans as one of the worst episodes made and the demarkation point between the classic early seasons and the bit crap later era.
It’s story reveals that elementary school principal Seymour Skinner is actually a biker from Capital City, Armin Tamzarian, who took the identity of the real Seymour Skinner after his death while they were serving alongside each other in Vietnam.
However on the night of ‘Skinner’s’ 20th anniversary as principal the real Skinner returns home after spending two decades firstly in a POW comp and latterly in a sweatshop in China. However the real Skinner is not liked by Springfield, and tied to a train car and deported while Tamzarian is proclaimed Seymour Skinner in perpetuity.
Interestingly the way in which the ‘real’ Skinner is banished is reminiscent of the way that Poocie, voiced by Homer, was banished from the fictional ‘Itchy & Scratchy show’ in the previous season’s ‘The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show’. This self reverential deus ex machina is perhaps the root of fans loathing of the episode.
Part of the reason fans loved the show was it’s realism. Sure it’s animated but it also seemed to exist in the real world, in the same way as other sit-coms of the time like ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘Mad About You’ do. It was an exaggerated reality that only occasionally made use of cartoon physics. However there was always a grounding in reality.
‘The Principal and the Pauper’ put an end to that, the plot was unrealistic, wacky comedy that was then reset. It might have worked as a Halloween short for the ‘Treehouse of Horrors’ in some way. But as a general episode. No.
Harry Shearer who voices Skinner was outraged by the way the episode took the character, destroyed him, then just hit the reset button. He has remained outspoken against the episode ever since. Even series creator Matt Groening stated in 2006 that the episode was a mistake.
The legacy of this episode is that almost all fans consider it to be the end of the series ‘golden age’ before this the show was good since this is has been going downhill and is now scraping the bottom of the barrel. While there have been good episodes in the 20 years since ‘The Principal and the Pauper’ the overall trend has been downward.