- First broadcast: Thursday 14 February 1991, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 24 March 1997, BBC2
- Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
- First draft: David M Stern
- Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
- Storyboard: Raymie Muzquiz
- Animation director: Mark Kirkland
This episode was deliberately held back a few weeks in order to air on 14th February and so become The Simpsons’ first Valentine’s Day show. Principal Charming has another, far greater significance, however. It is the first episode in the programme’s history where the main protagonists are not members of the Simpson nuclear family. Instead, three supporting characters carry the bulk of the story. The result is one of the most entertaining stories of this season, and another milestone in The Simpsons’ development.
Marge asks Homer to find a date for her lovesick sister Selma. Homer tries to pair her up with Principal Skinner, only for the teacher to fall for Selma’s sister Patty instead. It’s a beautifully-crafted story with each fresh and often unexpected twist impeccably timed and executed. Patty and Skinner’s courtship unfolds with a clumsy grace that allows the writers to explore at length – and to great reward – both characters’ untapped hinterlands. As with One Fish, Two Fish…, you know the plot has to end with everything and everyone back where they were at the start, yet you’re happy to lap up all the feints and misdirections along the way. This is thanks almost entirely to a superb script that repays your attention every few seconds with micro-bursts of comic invention, from Homer’s Terminator-esque approach to matchmaking (“Must find man!”) to Patty and Selma’s photo album, replete with a snap of the pair posing by Lenin’s tomb:
The destination of this episode isn’t important; it’s the journey we take to get there that is so wonderful. 9
Up until fairly recently, Principal Skinner was someone who existed merely to interact with the Simpson family, usually in concise and unflattering situations. Here, suddenly, the man is fully-formed and resplendent as the second-best character* in the show. It is a spectacular transformation and entirely to be welcomed. “Wait a minute!” he gasps, in the middle of eating lunch alone in his office, “that smells like sodium tetrasulphate bonding with chlorophyll!” In a stroke his new and improved personality is defined: fastidious pedantry combined with doleful stabs at humanity.
Skinner’s wooing of Patty never feels contrived; the way he sings a few bars of the song Inchworm as he turns up for his first date is utterly charming. As for Patty and Selma, they too benefit from promotion to star billing, becoming so much more interesting and so much more, well, perversely likeable. “Will you be needing any lottery tickets?” Apu asks them. “No,” comes the terse response, followed immediately by: “All right, five.” “Tell me every filthy detail,” drawls Selma when Patty returns from her first date, “or is your tongue too tired?” Then there is the pair’s fondness for arch, barbed turns of phrases: “Hey, alley cats: save it for the honeymoon!” “Skin like a china doll and bosoms till Tuesday.” “It takes a right piece of cheese to catch the mouse.” They sound like no other character in The Simpsons, which is all to the good. Lastly, as a sidenote, two other people make their debut in this episode: Hans Moleman, one of the show’s most beautifully pathetic creations; and Groundskeeper Willie, an embryonic ball of ludicrous fury. 9
Locations and design
The twin poles of Patty and Selma’s orbit, their apartment and their place of work, are here revealed in all their full dilapidated majesty. The former is possibly the most joyless habitation in the whole of Springfield. Even the ceiling looks sorry for itself:
The apartment block is the sort of place you’d ideally want to run a million miles from, not beat a path to – which makes Skinner’s repeated odysseys all the more touching:
The department of motor vehicles where Patty and Selma are employed is a grisly brew, full of snaking lines of unhappy customers and unforgiving lines of inconsolable architecture.
It complements the story and the lives of its staff perfectly. It also makes for a pointed contrast with the revolving restaurant, where Skinner takes Patty on their first date and which is possibly the most extravagant building the whole of Springfield:
– despite being next to a rooftop prison protest and a suicide. 8
Pardon My Zinger
The revolving restaurant inspires one of the funniest lines of the episode, when Skinner announces to Patty, by way of clumsy smalltalk: “You know, food tastes better when you’re revolving.” Skinner also gets one of the best zingers, and one of the most memorable lines of the season, when he mutters with alarming intensity in the apartment corridor: “Kiss me, Patty; I don’t have cooties!” Homer’s role of supporting character works quite well, allowing him to pop up sporadically with a cracking line (“She’s a heifer, plain and simple!” just as Selma walks into the kitchen) or little acts of Homerishness, such as his bedside photo of a car shaped like a giant bowling pin.
It’s not a story packed with jokes, but when they come, they are sublime. 7
There aren’t any, but they are not missed and would only have over-stuffed an episode that is already amply filled with the pleasure of unfamiliar people taking centre stage. A neutral 5.
Alf Clausen picks up on Skinner’s recitation of Danny Kaye’s Inchworm and reworks the tune in a number of plaintive variations that appear during the episode. There are some great cues whenever Homer switches into “cyborg” mode during his hunt for a husband for Selma, which sound like any number of robots-gone-wrong films. We also get a huge slab of lush strings when Skinner and Selma part company for the final time. 8
Given his first real chance to make a go of Skinner, Harry Shearer charges at it full pelt, unleashing a fusillade that ranges from contended clucking to prissy grandstanding to eruptive caterwauling. It’s a joy to hear. There’s a sort of liberation in Shearer’s voice, as the character is finally freed from the constraints of barking a single line or being the footnote to a plot point. Listen for the little touches that do much to broaden the character, such as the cautious chuckle when he tells Homer: “Hell, these pants come off at night just like everybody else’s!” The performance is still slightly embryonic – the stubborn self-loathing is missing – but it’s a massive leap forwards. Julie Kavner’s great as well, having fun with injecting different shades of gruffness into the Bouvier sisters while actually making you feel pity for Selma and Patty for the first time. 8
Mark Kirkland is on form right from the very opening frame:
His depiction of Skinner and Patty kissing, as seen by Selma through her front door spy-hole, manages to be both utterly hideous yet wonderfully compelling:
There’s some wonderful animation when Homer meets Skinner to discuss Bart’s latest punishment. The drawing of Homer with half-shut eyes absolutely nails here – and forever – the character’s attitude to encounters of intense tedium:
– while Bart’s reaction to the prospect of Skinner coming round for dinner is framed brilliantly:
Not everything is right. A few of the drawings of Patty and Selma are a bit off, especially at the dinner table:
More convincing is Kirkland’s animation of Patty snoring on the sofa, which is pitiless in its detail:
There’s also a scene when animation, character and story all come together to create a moment of exquisite timing: the way the ash falls from the end of Selma’s cigarette as Bart tells her that Skinner is going to propose to Patty:
There’s more pathos in that ash than almost anything else in this episode. 8
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
We’ve reached the point in the show’s history where a Simpsons episode without a film reference is the exception, not the rule. Principal Charming has four of them. As Skinner races to the top of the school’s bell tower to find out what Bart has etched in the grass using “sodium tetrasulphate”, he casts a glance back down the steps, whereupon the camera recreates a moment from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo:
Later, Skinner’s struggle to carry Patty to the top of the tower is a spoof of the 1939 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The computerised text that scrolls in front of Homer’s eyes when he’s out matchmaking is a nod to The Terminator (or possibly Westworld, or possibly both):
Finally, Skinner references a line of dialogue from Gone With the Wind when, heartbroken after splitting from Patty, he spies the school in the distance: “Oh, Springfield Elementary: I will have you back again. After all, tomorrow is another school day!” All these homages are done with the now customary attention to detail and, in the case of the latter, real artistic flair. 9
Emotion and tone
It’s not often you care about every single character in an episode of The Simpsons, but that’s what happens here, such is the thoughtfulness and depth of David Stern’s script – the first of two he would contribute to the show about Patty and Selma (the other is season’s four outstanding Selma’s Choice). Hitherto aloof and indistinct individuals are revealed to be fragile and sympathetic; everyone wants the best for everyone else, but realise the next best thing is making the most of what they already have.
And so things return full circle, with Patty and Selma giving up on men in favour of pancakes, and Bart once more under the yoke of Skinner. As Groundskeeper Willie booms in the final scene: “I told you you’d be back!” 10