Let us now praise Patty and Selma. Like so much of the show’s supporting cast, the gruesome twosome was conceived along stereotypical lines. They were supposed to be stock characters, little more than comic foils to Homer. Think of them as Statler and Waldorf to Homer’s Fozzie Bear, quintessential haters who aren’t content unless they’re making their brother-in-law miserable.
Patty and Selma would be inspired creations even if all they ever did was pick away at Homer’s self-esteem, if their role never developed beyond serving as a peanut gallery hurling sarcastic invective and sour contempt Homer’s way.
Thankfully, the show decided to do something wonderful and unexpected with these sad-sack spinsters: it took their existential angst, mid-life crises and baby fever seriously. The show might have created Patty and Selma primarily to bedevil Homer but they quickly became a vehicle to explore serious subjects: the perils and joys of a life-long partnership and the haunting prospect of growing old and feeble without a husband or children to share your life with.
There is a moment in just about every Patty and Selma episode where the laughs and levity subside and the gravity and urgency of the sister’s plights bubble up to the surface. That’s especially true of todays' episode, “Principal Charming,” a low-key masterpiece that goes a long way towards establishing Patty and Selma as surprisingly deep characters.
The episode begins with Patty and Selma attending the wedding of a co-worker and Selma realizing that she could have been the blushing bride if Patty hadn’t ruined her chances. The happy domestic life she could have experienced spills out before Selma, who realizes that nightly viewings of MacGuyver haven’t quite satiated her need for a man in her life.
So Homer is burdened with the impossible task of finding an appropriate male suitor for his reviled sister-in-law. The conversation where Marge harangues Homer into service contains some of my favorite exchanges of the entire season, specifically when Marge delineates the main difference between Patty and Selma: one chose a life of celibacy; the other had a life of celibacy thrust upon her. I also liked it when Marge listed the qualities a suitor should have and Homer angrily wonders aloud why Selma should do better than Marge when it comes to finding a man.
Homer’s quest for a man for Selma is filmed as an extended parody of The Terminator; this doesn’t sound terribly promising in theory but proves clever in practice. Homer eventually decides on Principal Skinner as Selma’s beau-to-be, only to have him fall hopelessly in love with Patty instead.
Julie Kavner is not a woman of a thousand voices. She essentially has one voice she modulates slightly yet it’s remarkable how Kavner’s trademark rasp sounds cheerful and endearing emerging from Marge and soul-crushing and despairing when emanating from Patty and Selma’s nicotine-scarred lungs.
Patty and Selma are monsters, but it’s hard not to feel for them as they each wrestle with terrifying scenarios: Selma is saddened by the prospect of losing one of her last shots at gaining a man, while Patty is horrified by the prospect of ending up with a man, any man, for reasons that would become crystal clear over the course of the show. (Here's a hint: She's a lesbian.)
We got to see a new, more vulnerable side of Selma and Principal Skinner (or as I like to call him, Skinny Boy) today. Skinner underwent a dramatic transformation upon falling for Patty; he morphed magically from sour-faced scold to a dreamy true romantic who is only too happy to let Bart usurp his hard-win authority.
“Principal Charming” ends with Patty and Principal Charming’s tenuous bond being severed and Selma and Patty’s much stronger connection reaffirmed. For better or worse, Patty found her soulmate long ago; hell, they’re both products of the same tainted womb. This stellar episode ends on an appropriately bittersweet note: “Principal Charming” does justice to both the tragic and comic side of these tragicomic and brilliantly conceived supporting players.