I’ve always been a sucker for Principal Skinner. His happy fastidiousness, his crippling fear of being a disappointment, his lonely, destined-to-be-humiliated perseverance in the face of a world seemingly designed by a prankish, mean-spirited God (possibly sporting pointy yellow hair and a slingshot) whose only delight seems to be his very public downfall—Skinner is Springfield’s whipping boy, simply by virtue of how he’d very much prefer things to be less like Springfield than they are. For all his crippling mommy issues and humorlessness, Skinner is often the closest thing Springfield (and Springfield Elementary) has to a voice of reason—at least when Lisa’s shunted off to the B-story. And his increasingly desperate flailing to convince everyone that he is not, in fact, powerless to prevent disaster are reliably, endearingly funny.
Which is partly why “Yellow Subterfuge” is so disappointing—it squanders some very promising Skinner. The premise is set early, with Skinner (roused from his Django-inspired dream of himself as a gun-toting Old West peacekeeper on a Superintendent Chalmers steed) announcing that, thanks to his sailor “old navy buddy” (they shop at the same Old Navy), the school will be rewarding the best-behaved Springfield Elementary students with a trip on an actual submarine. Apart from being terrifyingly unsafe and all, the prize is a perfect illustration of how Skinner’s mind works—every kid (apart from Lisa) will want it, and to get it they’ll have to help him achieve what he wants most in the world: a quiet, orderly school filled with children trying to out-behave each other for his favor. (Bart even calls off his hovercraft-deployed beehive attack for the opportunity.) It’s the setup for a classic Bart vs. Skinner battle of wits—but it never pays off.
Part of the reason why is that the episode keeps veering off to follow one of the least effective B-stories in recent memory. See, Krusty’s broke again, so Lisa, gracelessly plunked down on her bike to give counsel, advises him to franchise his TV show internationally. Which could be a fine plot of its own episode, but here all it leads to is a tiresome Spongebob parody—and then a parade of lazy, borderline offensive ethnic jokes as we witness, for example, the comedy stylings of Jamaican Krusty (his Itchy and Scratchy knockoffs smoke a lot of weed), Irish Krusty (his show a rambling, drunken Angela’s Ashes melodrama), and Chinese Krusty (alongside “Sideshow Mao” emerging from a giant fortune cookie). And while some of that hackiness might be attributable to the international army of Krustys being hacks themselves, most of it comes home to roost on the Simpsons’ writers (the episode is credited to Joel H. Cohen), who seem content here to peddle in the most facile stereotypes for lazy laughs. (I’m exhausted to imagine who would actually be stirred to laugh by a joke whose only punchline is “Jamaican people smoke pot.”)
And while I suppose the show’s structure demands a B-story every outing, some of that dead Krusty air could have been repurposed to flesh out the Skinner/Bart story, a pairing which has reliably produced over the years. As Skinner, being Skinner, loses perspective in his newfound power to inspire a shenanigans-free school, and relishes the power of his red pen to strike students off the submarine list, we’re treated to some classic Skinnerisms. As few pains as he takes to disguise his disenchantment with The Simpsons, Harry Shearer is never more on-point as when giving voice to Skinner’s beleaguered quest for order. Whether eliminating a food-fighting student for an “unauthorized meatapult”—or underscoring the importance of his field trip idea by touting the “sign here” stickers applied to the permission slips—or warning students ominously that once they’re crossed off the list, they’re off to stay “because that’s what pens do!”—Shearer just seems to get Skinner. Nurturing the sliver of hope that he might, this time, not flame out in front of the very people he’s so desperate to impress with his authority thrills him to no end. It’s that overconfidence that’s his downfall here, however, as his unfair elimination of Bart (tracking in muddy footprints after struggling valiantly to arrive at school on time) brings down his nemesis’ Homer-aided wrath. (Bart’s best line sees him showing a recent test graded “A+” to Milhouse and complaining, “five days with no pranks—I’m getting these strange red marks.”)
With Homer at his side, Bart, alongside a complicit Mother Skinner, contrives to convince the principal that he’s actually murdered his mom. It’s not a horrible idea—again, if it had been given some time to breathe. But shoehorned in to the episode’s last five minutes (before the limp payoff to the Krusty story dribbles out), the whole thing is just too rushed to build the comic momentum such a silly premise needs. That being said, Homer takes to the plan with humorous commitment. I especially like his conspiratorial seriousness in his exchange with Bart: “What’s Skinner’s weakness?” “Pretty much everything.” “Good—we can use that...” And how his devotion to the gag has seemingly sent his sense of reality off into Homer-land, as he admonishes a puzzled Skinner, “You kill ‘em, I get rid of ‘em—that’s always been our deal.” And Bart and Homer’s plan, to disguise Skinner as “Dick Fiddler,” complete with fake ID and beard, and then to smuggle him out of town in a potato sack, is suitably ludicrous. As is Skinner's unquestioning acquiescence to Homer’s carefully constructed backstory that he can’t eat one of the potatoes because Dick Fiddler is allergic to potatoes (“I understand...”).
While there are a fair amount of laughs along the way, “Yellow Subterfuge” is a rushed, ramshackle enterprise, livened up by some solid Skinner-work. Even Bart’s teary breakdown to Homer that he had actually been trying to be good cribs liberally from the legendary “Bart Gets An F,” one of the first episodes to hint at The Simpsons’ seemingly incongruous ability to wring genuine emotion from overtly silly situations. It’s a damnably difficult balance to achieve—but the show used to be much better at it.
- Not that the show provides a joke to go with it, but a cameo from Jub-Jub is always welcome.
- Marge’s perpetual tap-dance to avoid discouraging her kids: “Sweetie, about the submarine—what’s your favorite food to eat when you’re disappointed?”
- Homer’s never quite so sensitive: “Marge, I love Bart as much as you do, but actually not...”
- Having Krusty explain what he could have done to save his show (“Go off the air while you’re still good, but that ship has sailed”) may be a “take that” to Simpsons’ critics, but it just makes this particular critic sad.
- Credit where it’s due—the payoff to the fart joke (Bart: “That’s not where I buried them”) made me laugh.
- Of course, Homer has already faked his own death at least once before...
- Another trenchant insight into a power-mad Skinner: “I’ve broken a 10-year-old's spirit—time for a fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt!”
- Skinner allows himself half of one marshmallow in his cocoa.
- In Skinner’s concluding dream, Dick Fiddler rides his horse into a brothel run by his mother. Staffed by hookers identical to his mother. Best not to think about it too much.