Principal Charming

Principal Charming

My Recollection.

Side characters. Terminator vision. Pat-ty.

Most mischief exists within a tolerable band where nobody gets murdered or maimed and the property damage is kept under a few hundred dollars. This is the fun mischief, the kinds of anti-social behaviour that stands as a statement of self in opposition to not-self, the shouted No of the soul. This can, of course, be taken too far but those events are unintentional side-effects, and most children have an instinctive grasp of when a line has been crossed.

Then there are the kids who start at too far and go from there. I have met a few.

One had a face that looked like it was allergic to itself and a body that looked like puberty was drunk. The resulting organism’s profile looked like an Easter Island head atop another Easter Island head. It, and I use that word deliberately, was one of the strangest things I’d spent time with at school. Not malicious, exactly. Not a school shooter, probably. Not a bad person, precisely. Just an impossibly inscrutable pork bun face and the kind of personality you’d get if you were mashing A during the character creator. This kid’s psychic footprint was so small he could sneak up on Professor X.

I only saw it do a few things at high school and I mean ever. Most of the time it was a sweet potato in a cap for a sports team it didn’t follow who played a sport it never watched. But sometimes a form of mischief would tickle some otherwise dormant neural structure and the thing would light up like a haunted pinball machine. Science was where it was most active. This wasn’t because it liked science, it didn’t, it was because no other class had electricity or fire.

Mucking about in a science class is already playing close to the road so the unspoken rules get unspoken even louder. Throwing iodine crystals at each other is fun but we had no idea what something that turned your skin yellow would do to an eye, and we hadn’t listened when that was being explained, so we kept the aim low and the throws gentle to keep from finding out. Unspoken rules still require the basics of language, though, and the double-decker Moai seemed to only tilt its head toward strong radio signals meaning basic things like “don’t just light the gas tap” didn’t register. This classically manifested itself in him lighting the gas tap.

A lot of the dumb shit young people do comes as the result of a challenge. Nobody just shits on the floor, but phrase it as a dare or something and bingo: floor turd. The Moai innovated its way beyond this by just doing the things you’d normally have to dare someone to do. So, seconds into the class and with the gas taps only just turned on, he pulled a zippo and lit the tap. There was no warning. Not even so much as a, “Hey, check this out”. He was a court jester performing for a mirror on a throne.

The science tables were designed to have two stations that seated 3 students with each station being separated by an uneventful patch of plain desk. I was sitting at the rightmost station bordering the no-man’s-land when that uneventful patch became a sudden combination of bright and warm.

The mind tends to automatically dismiss the absurd. Things so over the unspoken line, like setting alight the gas tap that connected to big things of gas underneath the class, were in a category so fundamentally outside expected experience that it took effort to convince myself that Yoga Flame was now one of my lab partners. The class acknowledged it as one and reacted in synchronised panic. Even the other dipshit teens leapt away in an uncharacteristic display of caring about something. The Moai gurgled a laugh while ambling toward the principal’s office and the teacher explained how pressure meant we were in no danger of exploding. Science!

The Moai didn’t use this event in the usual teen fashion. He didn’t leverage it into a statement about how he is a lone wolf who plays by his own rules. He didn’t play it off like a prank by a master prankster. It was done as if that moment contained no other possible option and so simply moved toward it like a bloated Golden Man.

It’s this underlying lack of intelligible motivation that made dealing with him odd for us and challenging for teachers. He’d never done anything like this before. He seldom turned in work, but he seldom disrupted class. So he was left to his own fungusy devices in the back of whatever class he found himself in. This baffling peace lasted for over a year. Then we were being taught about electricity.

Electricity is fun. It’s what makes my videogames and The Flash work. Sometimes the electricity in the sky yells at me. I don’t know why it does that but it has instilled me with a respectful fear the the mighty Electric. The Moai exists beyond fear. He snuck in through Zen’s back door and bumbles around, breaking Enlightenment’s nice things. The screaming tears of raw energy mean nothing to him beyond the combination of bright and loud that its frightening stone brain responded to.

When a science class wants to teach you about electricity, the devices they give you have been honed to a safety nub through years of idiot children finding every possible danger point. We plugged a box into the power point and this box put most of the electricity out of our reach. To see where the electricity is going, we’re given little lights that look like steampunk nipples. These lights didn’t get too bright or too hot, and they didn’t use too much of the dangerous electricity. Idiot proof.

But not Moai proof.

One simply can’t prepare for the unthinkable or it would have been thought. The Moai lived in this pocket dimension by virtue of being a conscious entity unaware it was such. He picked up and long considered the steampunk nipple. He bent the little wires it had on each side, there to demonstrate how circuits work, and considered it again. He looked at the box, the lovely safe box, and considered it. He was done considering.

He put the wires from the little light bulb into the two sloping slots of the standard Australian power outlet and switched it on.

There was a white flash as the Electric woke up and shot a molten glob of erstwhile light bulb across a science lab and into the opposite wall. The Glob, guided, presumably, by the grace of The Moai’s presence in Enlightenment, managed to miss the 5 students between the outlet and the wall and this was just as fucking well. I wandered in after the class, the rumour mill having already gotten wind, and The Glob had burned itself into the wall.

Fun’s fun, but endangering students to such a degree is enough to get even a public school to notice. The Moai was cast from science, much to his scarcely noticing, and spent the period in a library room set aside for baffling mutants.

The Episode

The interaction between economics and creativity is an interesting thing. Take The Walking Dead. As a comic, it is limited pretty much only by the imagination. Want a vast horde? There you go. Want a near city full of maniacs? Sure, weird not to have one. Want to introduce new characters and kill them almost instantly to fill the reader with a genuine fear of narrative threats? Go fucking nuts. The television series is bound by the economic realities of he medium. Want a vast horde? We’ll see what the CGI department can manage. Want near city full of maniacs? Jesus, how ’bout a suburb and about 30 extras. Want to kill a character? Well, maybe when we have to pay Chandler Riggs as an adult.

The current era of demented, cash-drunk creativity probably won’t last but god I really want it to. These days, a bassoon manufacturing company can start a streaming platform and give some lunatic auteur a million per episode for a deranged saga filmed entirely on location. Whether or not the results are any good is irrelevant as things have the potential to be so much better.

It wasn’t always this way. The era The Simpsons came from was one of stultifying economic pressure. Sitcoms had maybe 4 sets, 5 if you’d been good, and most of these were in the one house you never got to leave (I still believe the entirety of Everybody Loves Raymond was shot in one of Brad Garrett’s pants pockets). So series were more glorified bottle episodes whose narrative weight was taken by the five or so characters doomed to suffer in an unchanging pocket dimension. With a few exceptions (Seinfeld integrated New York as a character into the show) these pocket dimensions were so isolated within their few sets they could have happened anywhere (and, indeed, this was by design to make them more marketable). These dimensions were so narrow that adding characters to them has historically been met with hostility and the Cousin Oliver trope exists to negatively label any sitcom’s attempt to modify or expand outside its confines.

The Simpsons’ reality is most definitely it’s own little pocket, but it is one made free from the traditional constraints by virtue of it costing the same to draw a Hawaiian island as it does to draw the Simpson’s lounge. When your characters can easily go outside, your fake reality is given real credentials. Springfield isn’t just a label on a bottle, it has its own geography, stores, and citizens who interact across a living space.

Cousin Oliver and countless other interlopers stood out because adding them to the series was like trying to jam a new GPU into an Acer Aspire (something my housemate actually tried to do once). A lack of financial constraints opened The Simpsons up and this means they can do something fairly unique among sitcoms: successfully focus a whole story on side characters. This diffuses the series’ energy into a broader ecosystem that could grow to create the kind of feedback systems that can support at least a decade of top television.

Later series would walk this path with less care or concern, the family would just help strangers without much sane motivation because it had become a less questioned narrative trope, this episode ties it to something with more natural narrative impetus: Marge helping her lonely sister. This thoughtfulness is the binding agent for what is a prototypical terrific Simpsons episode. A lead-in that is slightly off topic but veers naturally into the story proper, Homer wanting to go be a pig at a rib place necessitating dumping the kids at their aunts’. A narrative shift that is organic to this beginning, a wedding triggering Selma’s loneliness. The two finally fusing with a gentle B story, Marge forcing Homer to search for a man for Selma and Bart’s misbehaviour leading him to Skinner.

When everything flows naturally, the audience loses sight of the strings moving the puppets. This engagement acts as a kind of connective tissue to the events onscreen and this adds a subconscious note of authenticity to the character’s emotions. The “emotional moments” in most comparable sitcoms of the era were as awkwardly juxtaposed to their comedy as their 3 wall sets were to reality. Emotional moment. Audience goes “Awwww”. Joke to cut the sweetness. Credits.

The Simpsons does do this sort of thing, but it’s buffered by moments of sometimes harrowingly real emotion that exist outside of the trope lego of other sitcoms. Moments like Selma talking to Lisa, and the brutal line, “… and since I’m sure you’d only resent the pity of an eight year old niece, I’ll simply hope that you’re one of the statistically insignificant number of forty-year-old single women who ever find their fair prince”, are a painful level of truth for anything, let alone a family sitcom. It’s these extremes that bolster the effects of the more traditional emotional palette of the sitcom elements. In education, thwarting student expectations turns the subject of interest into a novel stimulus, which generates engagement via exploratory curiosity. Hitting deep emotional lows does a similar thing to the audience, and the resulting uncertainty is an anxious energy the narrative can exploit.

At its core, Principal Charming is a sad episode about loneliness and failure. Other sitcoms, with far weaker emotional threats, alternate sad to happy like they’re good cop and bad cop in a pattern that was stale the moment it hit. What makes it possible for The Simpsons to have such a grim focus is that it keeps the two emotional poles in a tight orbit. This is Selma’s disappointment is countered by Homer’s hilarious attempts to help or even pretend to care, “She’s a heifer, plain and simple,” still gets me. Skinner’s genuine care, motivated by a clear loneliness, is countered by Bart’s exploitation and bullshit, “THERE ARE NO OTHER BARTS!” Patty is the only one comfortable with who she is, an actively antisocial celibate who fuels herself with negativity, and this is challenged by a glimpse into the pain behind the resignation via her slow acceptance of Skinner.

This is a great episode, a classic of the series, because it all the parts that made the show so unique working together so well. It’s sad, it’s funny, and it expands the palette of characters in a way that was impossible for other sitcoms.

Yours in being able to drink a whole bucket of it by itself, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

The huge narrative problem we’re all tiptoeing around is that anyone would fall immediately, madly in love with either of the gruesome twosome but I’ll chalk that up to being a foundation MacGuffin, like warp drive.

Marge is pretty flexible.

Homer pausing for the five words is a good gag.

Our first real look at Hans Moleman! The name comes from how he was referred to by staff and was not his real name. It was, in fact, Ralph Melish and he is 6 days away from his 70th birthday here.

There’s one for your trivia night

Patty slumped in the chair, snoring, is an example of the way little visual gags can flesh out character and the comic tone of the episode. There are a fair few visual gags here, a lot in the classic, “stuff going on in the background of normal action” style. Like salt, they can be overused, but they otherwise buff the joke volume and give the episode those blink and you’ll miss them gags that keep the energy up between major comic beats.

Homer saying, “That was just an idle promise” like that’s gonna get him out of trouble is a solid line demonstrating Homer’s complex, multilevel stupidity.

On a similar line is, “Hey, why should she have a better husband than you?” It’s an obvious joke, but what makes it is how indignant Homer is when he says it. It’s not coming from a place of pain, exactly, he says it like the core idea is something as obviously true as the sky is up. Things like this help him not notice the joke as a joke. A lot of sitcoms will have characters deliver lines that are funny or witty but that elicit no laughter from anyone around and this is always an awkward moment as it highlights that it was for the audience. This split between the idea of a character being or saying something funny diegetically versus non-diegetically creates that kind of artificiality 90s sitcoms reeked of. This line is a perfect example of how to use tone and character to have your cake and eat it too.

“It’s Patty who chose a life of celibacy.” Retconning for representation is a stupid way to go about it. If you feel represented by some kind of sexuality palette swap then you’re a one-note human being who could be represented by a cardboard human silhouette with “GAY” written on it. Gay Patty is an idea that could have easily worked well, had they made even the slightest suggestion that it was the case. So much as a throwaway line would have done. But they didn’t, so the idea that she was always gay is just bad writing. And besides, can’t the asexuals have this one?

Hey, Terminator sight gags. This is a good example of an explicit reference, even though it’s using a kind of knock-off version of the Terminator’s vision. These days, either as a result of audience expectation or creator effort, the fidelity of references is typically far closer. It’s possible there were legal fears back in the day, but nowadays this joke would have the full red wash and movie accurate lettering sections.

Another example of a slightly more subtle reference is the Vertigo one with Skinner running up Springfield Elementary’s bell tower. This is a bit more subtle as there is nothing inherently non-diegetic, like Homer’s Terminator perspective, about it. It defines itself by having shots, angles, and music that are odd only when measured against the rest of the episode. They stand out, making them an overt reference, but will only make sense to someone who has seen Vertigo, so it sits on the middle rung between overt and esoteric.

“Possible Homer Sexual” still kills me.

Skinner really becomes himself in this episode. His sad, dorkiness is everywhere, from his loneliness to his genuine appreciation of school cafeteria tater-tots. This is a characterisation that has survived a lot, even total retcons, and one of my personal favourites.

Selma buying a pile of lottery tickets is a great bit of characterisation. Mass scratch-it purchases are the tragic gambling addiction of people too broken to even pretend a poker machine will pay out. You see it a lot in the suburbs, an old friend’s mum used to buy 7-10 every time she picked him up from school and scratch them off before she’d leave.

The rotating restaurant is a great Simpsons standard, the good but dry action going on in the foreground and things like prison riots happening in the background. It’s funny by itself and it adds to the character of Springfield as a shithole.

The Space Mutants series is an interesting example of something I mentioned when talking about the fidelity of the Terminator reference as it’s the kind of non-copyright stand-in that isn’t as prevalent these days. Also, that movie is real, it’s called The Howling III and holy shit it’s bad.

Nobody has ever thought it safe to go down under

Bart using his knowledge of his aunt’s tastes to control Skinner is a fantastic way to mesh the A and B plots into a mutually supporting whole as opposed to just slapping them together at the end. I wish they’d go to more effort for things like this as the results are always better.

Selma not even bothering to come up with an excuse for Barney is great.

Another borderline esoteric reference with Skinner and Gone With the Wind at the end, noticeable by it’s strange beauty when compared with the rest of the episode but without enough to know if it’s just the animators going hard.

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4 Replies to “Principal Charming”

  1. If I recall correctly, this is also the episode that introduced Groundskeeper Willie, one of my favorite characters.

    One time I was talking about pranks with some friends and one swore you could get a tank of nitrogen and make parts of the lawn slightly greener, opening up thousands of opportunities to make swears that would last several months. When he told me that I thought of the herbicide writing in this episode.

    1. I completely forgot about Willie. I got so hung up on Moleman having a different name. This is kind of a traditional Simpsons side character introduction for him. He is there only for a few moments and only in scenes where it makes sense for him to be present.

      That said, it’s remarkable how little he’s changed over the years and most of that comes from how dead on they get him from go.

  2. My biggest takeaway from this episode back in the school days was me and my brother saying “You haven’t seen the last of me willie” in the worst scottish voices we could manage. I barely remember Homer’s terminator vision until rewatching, now that its fresh in my mind I can safely say it’s an absolute gem of a running gag.

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