100. Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song

“…oh, mercy!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 28 April 1994, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Thursday 31 December 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Bob Anderson

Few British sitcoms make it as far as 100 episodes. You can count them on the fingers of both hands. Some are defiantly pedestrian shows whose longevity was more to do with the cosiness of the format than the exceptionalism of the jokes (Last of the Summer Wine, The Army Game, Birds of a Feather). Others made it past 100 by reinventing or reviving themselves under different names (Till Death Us Do Part, Sykes, the Doctor series). Three of them cheerily and harmlessly filled the schedules of children’s television for year after year (Chucklevision, Mike & Angelo, Bodger & Badger). None reached 100 in rude health or fizzing with potential. Some barely had these to begin with.

It’s a different matter in America, as you’d expect. More than a hundred US sitcoms have made it past 100, a reflection not just of the mechanics of production (longer runs of episodes, bigger teams of writers, larger budgets) but also a different appreciation of the permanence of a sitcom within the landscape of primetime television. US networks have been happy to nurture them, sustain them and flog them to death with far more aplomb and far less shame than over here. In turn, actors and writers have committed to them – and been shackled to them – in far greater quantities. One consequence is that many US sitcoms sail past 100 episodes in the time it takes a UK sitcom to limp past 25. Another is that reaching the 100 milestone is, for a hit sitcom at least, the rule rather than the exception. It is commemorated typically with a clip show or something that ends up overreaching itself in scale or impact, leaving you less not more appreciative of its feat of endurance.

The Simpsons dodged both of these options and went instead for what it had always done best: telling a story rich with intriguing character, sharp humour and human emotion. It was a wise choice. Not that the anniversary is ignored; a sense of occasion is present in this episode – the pastiche of The Wonder Years at the start, Marge telling Bart: “How would you like it if 20 years from now people were laughing at things you did?”. But these things are over in a couple of minutes and things move quickly on to a script that is brimming with treats. Biggest treat of all is the decision to place at the story’s heart Bart’s relationship with someone other than his family. It’s not an original idea, but that doesn’t make it a bad one. Nor does its simplicity mean it is somehow carries less punch or deliver less entertainment than some of season five’s more spectacle-rich stories. Rather it arrives as a refreshing break from those sorts of tales, and does so at exactly the right moment.

An anniversary episode that doesn’t try to be the noisiest, gaudiest, celebrity-packed knees-up imaginable is just as welcome as one that avoids the easy option of a clip show. There are plenty of the latter to be found throughout the history of The Simpsons. As for the former, plonk yourself in front of the 200th episode and prepare to be battered into disappointment. What is most satisfying about this anniversary, however, is the writers’ decision to steer clear of family ties. A story that turned inwards and picked over the state of play between Bart and Homer, or Bart and Lisa, would have felt like old ground: been there, seen that. A story that turns outwards and refocuses your appreciation of Bart through the lens of someone else is much more fertile ground. That the someone in question is Principal Skinner elevates the plot (10) from the intriguing to the sublime.

Skinner has always been one of the show’s finest creations, even in the early days when fulfilling the lowly job of occasional victim for one of Bart’s brattish pranks. As his profile grew during seasons three and four, so his personality became stacked with more potential and his eccentricities all the more compelling. A new peak is reached in this story, with Skinner’s characterisation (10) crafted immaculately from just the right mix of bluster, sympathy and charm. Whether hiccuping with fright in the school gym, conducting Beethoven in his bedroom or pondering the choice of detergent in the laundrette, he is utterly, enchantingly plausible. The same goes for Bart’s relationship with Skinner, which is seeded from the moment Superintendent Chalmers tells Skinner he’s fired and the camera cuts to Bart’s face looking crumpled with concern. Watching the pair growing awkwardly closer is a delight. The scene where Skinner is cooking Bart a barbecue has a lightness of touch so often missing from this season (“That place must be falling apart – oh, mercy!”). The writers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein have a fine talent for handing characters dialogue that is both personable and humorous. They also know how best to deploy off-camera lines, be they from Agnes Skinner (“Seymour, your friend Bart is here… Seymour, do you want me to tell you when it’s 7.30?”) or Luigi the Italian chef (“Give the ugly kid a plate of real crap!”). The change on Bart’s face as he hears this remark, feeling already disconsolate at Skinner’s absence (“Table for one”), is one of many elements that give the episode such a beguiling tone (10): a look of disbelief that manages to be both startled and resigned. Bart is offended but too sad to make a fuss.

Another element is stillness. There are several moments in the episode where very little happens, and one where nothing happens at all:

This moment of silence, with no dialogue or even music to bridge the gap, is all the more affecting for coming in a season where noise and clutter is often well to the fore. The slower pace also allows the jokes (10) and vocal performances (10) more space to sparkle. Sometimes the slower pace is the joke itself (Skinner’s recitation of detergents in the laundrette). The architecture of the episode means that when the conclusion arrives, freighted with emotion, the closing lines don’t feel like they’ve been imported from some other place outside of sitcom land, but rather fit the tone exactly. Even Skinner and Bart’s hug is totally sincere – likewise their respective parting shots.

It’s an episode where as much thought has gone into how it sounds as how it looks – for example, the way Willie laughs when his feet are being licked by Santa’s Little Helper (like someone trying desperately hard not to laugh), the way everyone’s geode chimes in sequence as Bart looks round the bus, and the way Nelson reads the ingredients of a can of tomato paste (as if every item has caused him deep personal insult). The music (9) is scored with similar care. One single dramatic orchestral stab follows Chalmers telling Skinner he is fired, but one stab is all that is needed. There’s some superbly haphazard and pretentious jazz playing under the scene when Ned recalls his beatnik parents. And the moment when Skinner stands outside the school and sobs, distraught at what he has lost, has all the more impact thanks to mixture of the bittersweet echoes of dialogue (“Principal Skinner, I got car sick in your office”), poignant background music and Bob Anderson’s beautiful animation (10).

Homer is barely in it. At one point he looks like he’s going to force his way into the story and join Bart’s scheme to reinstate Skinner (“Once he found out we were going to get Ned Flanders he insisted on helping”). But he barely says anything and then disappears for the remainder of the episode. He’s not missed. The same goes for a celebrity doing a cameo. To make room for a well-known face would have been to dilute the strength of the episode, which is robust enough with just the standard cast. Instead there’s Frank Welker, who does his usual unimpeachable job of voicing Santa’s Little Helper (10), helped no end by a script that makes the dog seem both loveable and loved. Bart’s affection for the creature is completely believable, as is the affection shown it by the rest of his class and Mrs Krabappel (“Great job!” she congratulates Bart, in a nice moment of praise). Shared emotions – of fondness, exasperation, bemusement – reoccur throughout the episode. People are trying, succeeding and failing to get on with each other all the way through. This is true just as much of the minor characters as the leads. It’s there when Martin tries and fails to bond with his classmates (“My geode must be acknowledged!”) and when Chalmers tries and fails to bond with the pupils (“It’s just a damn popularity contest with you kids!”). And as Lisa notes, “even Maggie has that baby with the one eyebrow.”

Vigilance on the part of the production team and a concern for quality is present in scenes even like this, which involve a single line of dialogue and one visual gag. And while the story never strays far from familiar locations, their design (10) shows similar evidence of attention to detail. Rarely have ventilation ducts looked quite so menacing and/or fun to crawl through. The hat-tip to Alien is one of this season’s more imaginative parodies (9). When the Kwik-e-Mart explodes, there’s no need to see the moment of conflagration; it’s far more effective – and well-timed – for the ‘K’ from the roof to thud to earth in the background of the next scene. The sound of it landing is as satisfying as the sight of it just missing Bart and Skinner.

And if all that wasn’t enough for the senses, this has to be the first time testicles have appeared in a primetime sitcom – both clothed and naked:

The Simpsons notched up a century with one of its best ever episodes. It marshalled all its strengths in the right formation at the right moment to ensure a birthday worth celebrating and remembering. The show had travelled a long way from its meagre beginnings, but from foothills to summit is a journey completed with greater speed and less poise in reverse. By episode 100 The Simpsons was already nearer to the point in its history when things went wrong than when things began. The rot wouldn’t set in until nearly episode 200 (episode 183 to be precise) but, like all birthdays, this one now feels more a commemoration of times past as glories yet to come. Luckily there is more than enough glory evoked here to wish the programme, at this precise stage in its evolution 25 years ago, many happy returns. 98%

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