#27: Principal Charming

Season 2: Episode 14. Original airdate: February 14, 1991.

At some point, the writers realized there was more to this show than the Simpson family. That’s not to say the Simpsons themselves aren’t compelling characters, because they truly are some of the most well-defined creations in sitcom history. However, even in the first season, there were small glimmers of a bigger world outside of Evergreen Terrace, and tertiary characters initially developed as stereotypes were given the chance to develop and become as endearing as the title family. We saw it with Mr. Burns near the beginning of this season, and in “Principal Charming,” Patty and Selma get their due.

In the beginning, Patty and Selma were merely antagonists, and one-dimensional ones at that. They hated Homer, they thought Marge deserved better…and that’s it. There wasn’t a lot of subtlety to either of them. The beauty of The Simpsons is that those foundations were compelling enough, as with most secondary characters in the show, that there was a genuine desire to see more of these characters in both the writers and fans. This episode not only gives the twins depth and human emotion, it also gives them unique personalities that made each of them distinct people that can carry stories individually.

The episode opens with Patty and Selma attending a coworker’s wedding (which, isn’t it just too perfect that they work at the DMV? Brilliant.). As the groom recalls the day he met his wife, Selma reminisces on the moment when he was about to sit down next to her, but because of Patty’s presence moved to a different table, where his future wife happened to be sitting. It’s a heartbreaking realization of the magnitude our everyday decisions have on our futures, but it’s also revealing of Selma’s longing for love.

She confides in Marge about her loneliness, and Marge takes out a favor Homer owes her to find Selma a man. Homer is hesitant to help out a woman who so obviously detests him, and in fact he always assumed that Patty and Selma had both sworn off romance. In one of many tragic lines from this episode, Marge informs him that “Patty has chosen a life of celibacy, but Selma had celibacy thrust upon her.” Still reluctant, Homer sets off to find a suitable bachelor for his sister-in-law, and his search turns into a Terminator parody, with pros and cons for each man coming up in his HUD. I don’t really care for the Terminator gag, but it gets a few laughs, particularly when Homer finally finds a worthy man—Seymour Skinner.

When I read the title of this episode, I assumed it’d be a Skinner-centric affair, but I still came out satisfied with the shading done on his character here. Skinner is on the warpath early in this episode, disciplining and reprimanding the Springfield Elementary students even more than usual. When Bart burns his name into the playground grass with a chemical herbicide, the principal is furious and calls Homer in, which Bart uses as an opportunity to pull yet another name prank on Moe (“Homer-sexual,” one of my favorites so far). When Homer shows up at the school, his Terminator readout on Skinner lists numerous pros, but is hung up on the one hilarious con: “Possible Homer-sexual.” He not-so-subtly asks about Skinner’s orientation, and is relieved when he arranges for Skinner to be introduced to Selma at dinner that night.

Of course, Skinner falls for Patty instead of Selma, leading the latter to fall into a depressed funk after missing her opportunity at happiness once again. Patty, on the other hand, remains cold to Skinner, but continues to date him even after a fittingly-terrible date at the revolving restaurant, one of many culinary oddities that Springfield will be revealed to have. The only thing Patty and Skinner have in common is there shared hatred of the same things, which for one of the Bouvier twins makes a perfect match. Patty finds herself enjoying Seymour Skinner’s company, but she still recognizes the agony her romance is causing for her sister.

Selma’s story is filled with all sorts of little moments of tragedy. The best example is when she asks Bart about his principal and Patty, and her silent response to Bart is only broken by  a single ash falling from her cigarette. It’s a haunting moment that speaks volumes about the fear of loneliness and missing out on love forever. Another quiet moment of heartbreak is her pained lean against the door when she sees Patty kissing Skinner in the hallway. Both sisters have to cope with wildly different issues in this episode, with Selma tortured by her missed opportunities, and Patty terrified of ending up with a man.

Skinner is hopelessly in love with Patty, even reaching the point of proposing to her on the school bell tower (speaking of which, I need to mention somewhere on here the bizzare Vertigo reference when Skinner climbs the tower earlier in the episode. It totally came out of nowhere, but I loved it all the same). Patty declines, but respects Skinner’s love. She declines out of an even greater devotion to her sister, a touching moment that still rings bittersweet for both characters. They could have some form of happiness, but sacrifice Selma’s happiness at the same time. In the end, Selma remains alone, but she has her sister’s support nonetheless. It’s a difficult compromise the episode has to make, but it eventually turns out best for all involved, as we’ll someday learn the truth about Patty’s romantic interests.

This is a heartbreaking episode on a lot of levels, but I love the way it deepens the motivations and desires of the supporting characters. Patty and Selma could have remained one-sided beasts for the entire series, but instead we get episodes like this one that give them real issues to grapple with. One of the beautiful things about The Simpsons is the depth of its peripheral cast, and this sort of episode makes me eager to discover more about the wacky (and tragic) population of Springfield.

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