Got The Simpsons Season 9 this past week. This is an item well worth having, of course, but following the essential and well-nigh-fundamental to-Western-Civilization seasons 4 through 7, and the still very fine season 8, the drop-off in quality starts to be clear. It’s sadly ironic, really, because it’s when these episodes were running, back in 1997-98, that I really became an enthusiast, feverishly collecting the reruns on tape and all of that. But even then I had the uncomfortable feeling that the newer shows just weren’t quite the same thing. I was sure it was temporary. (Dry chuckle here.)
Indeed, the second of episode of season 9, “The Principal and the Pauper,” was immediately upsetting to fans, and was frequently pointed to in later years as a possible shark-jumping moment (though that term hadn’t then come into its eventual all-too-wide use.) This is the infamous “Armin Tamzarian” episode, in which Principal Skinner is revealed to be—to have always been—a possibly-insane con man, who stole the identity of the “real” Seymour Skinner in Vietnam. The show’s humor comes from the unexpected reappearance of this “real” Skinner, and from the gleefully cynical conclusion in which the whole town, including Skinner’s mother, decides that they preferred the fraudulent one. This is actually sort of funny (I particularly like Superintendant Chalmers’ declaration that “Armin Tamzarian’s reign of terror is over,”) but it’s easy to see why it bothered people. Undermining the fundamental nature of a long-running character, and doing so in such a cheerfully callous way, seemed to a lot of people (including me at the time) to be doing a weird sort of violence to the show. We were kind of missing the point, though—the writers were making fun of the whole idea that the characters on a show like this could stay the same for so long, that every episode would always start afresh in exactly the same place as all the others. They were openly mocking the very idea that we could understand the characters on a show this absurd to in some way be actual persons. Was this clever? Well, I guess, at least the first few times. But it was never really all that funny. And there are plenty of other oddly unfunny episodes in this season: Homer becomes a carny! Bart joins a football team! A whole episode devoted to Ralph Wiggum! Jay Leno! Some of these I doubt I’ll be watching more than once.
Still, though, there are some great, great moments here, starting right at the beginning, with “The City of New York Vs. Homer Simpson.” Compared to all of the “The Simpsons are going to [insert name of exotic destination]!” episodes that followed, this one is both affectionate and still real funny. I love Homer’s flashback to his nightmarish time in Taxi Driver-era Manhattan, ending with his rueful “…and that’s when the C.H.U.Ds came at me.” It’s got the now-bittersweet set-piece at the World Trade Center, in which Homer buys a sketchy-looking ethnic delicacy named Khlav Kalash from a street vendor, and is faced with a terrible choice of beverages. “Mountain Dew, or crab juice?” the vendor asks. Homer makes a terrible face and orders the crab juice, as any of us would. This episode also features the word “malparkage” and the first appearance of Duffman. The Lord of the Flies parody “Das Bus” makes no sense at all, but has lots of great jokes. “Lisa the Simpson” is still sort of sweet, proving that not all the humanity had yet been drained from the characters. And there are many, many other bits I remember fondly, even from otherwise mediocre episodes: Homer’s gleeful “stealing a car for Moe” song in “Dumbbell Indemnity,” and the cinematic landmark Hail to the Chimp that we catch a glimpse of in that same episode. Homer calling the garbagemen “trash-eating stinkbags,” and then trying to weasel out of it, observing that “a lot of people were yellin’ stuff.” Homer compressing five pounds of spaghetti into one handy mouth-sized bar. (“Hospital, please.”) And of course, Mojo the helper monkey, whose cholesterol is “through the roof.” So many memories. If you’re a fan, definitely get this last glimpse of this show before the serious decadence set it. If you’re a casual viewer, please get season four.