When we think of classic episodes of The Simpsons, our minds tend to drift towards the big guest stars, the bombastic plots and the most biting of satires. For me, though, I enjoy the episodes where they’re brutally realistic. For example, an episode consisting of Homer lending money from Patty and Selma may seem instantly throwaway, but upon watching it’s grounded in low-key brilliance.
A prime contender for the most underrated episode is, fittingly, its 100th outing. Upon watching this episode for the first time in donkey’s years, I was shocked at just how real and emotionally restrained the script is; there is an abundance of pauses, awkward silence, shy mutterings…for an animation, it’s brave to concoct over 20 minutes of material to such a bare subject, but it works brilliantly because, as real-life people (we are that, I think), we invest so heavily in such a real-life situation.
The plot is great because it’s handled in such a mannered way. The main issue with The Simpsons from, say, Season Ten, is that the characters are all ‘Flanderised’ – Mr Burns and Smithers are joined at the hip, Moe is perpetually suicidal, Lenny and Carl are embroiled in some subconscious asexual pact. No more so is Skinner, who is essentially a spineless middle-aged man who apparently sleeps in a cot. Here, though, he is still Skinner at his purest – he cares about the school, though is permanently stressed over budgets, low test scores and Superintendent Chalmers (and another thing, does Chalmers only work at Springfield Elementary these days?! He’s always there).
It’s when the plot’s main premise kicks in do we get a fascinating overview into a secondary character’s life. After he is fired by Chalmers, Skinner is rudderless, though cocoons himself in chipper optimism, a sad reflection on something a lot of us do when we’re let go from a job we enjoy. The scenes of Skinner going about his daily routine – choosing detergents at the laundromat, shopping at the Kwik-E-Mart and faux conducting in his bourgeois bedroom – are really intriguing. It might surprise writers of modern day Simpsons, but the inquisitive nature of us viewers relishes the chance to see a character of authority go about his life, without explosions or over-the-top embellishment.
Some episodes of The Simpsons usually balance a fearlessly real plot with something a bit more outlandish (see ‘Lisa’s Rival’, for example). Here, though, added to the scenes of Skinner peddling his wares is his new acquaintanceship with Bart, which invokes a large of amount of awkward badinage, murmurings and forced conversation. It works not just because Bart befriends Skinner out of guilt, but because outside of their school roles, they obviously need each other. In particular, the scene of Bart and Skinner gawkily exchanging pleasantries as he does his laundry is wonderful, and mirrors a real-life conversation beat for beat.
As their friendship grows, it works really well, particularly the scene where Skinner is barbequing in his back garden. The writing flows really nicely and naturalistically, and you really invest in the situation, especially Skinner eagerly hoping that the school is struggling without him (we all want to know this about a place that’s fired us, surely?).
The episode ends as it should, with Skinner returning as Principal (we do, before this though, get a moving shot of Skinner mournfully walking past the school, which is handled with just the right amount of pathos) and Bart being reinstated as his nemesis. But for the whole episode, the show shows deft amounts of restraint; there are no outlandish side-plots, no Homer being a jerk or ramped-up action sequences. Instead, we’re treated to an almost voyeuristic view into a humdrum life. It’s almost like a Noah Baumbach movie.
For having the gall to make their 100th episode such a low-key affair, and using one of their sweeter, understated plots, the writers deserve a lot of praise. Would The Simpsons of modern day even contemplate doing an episode like this? And, furthermore, what show of any kind can get genuine emotion out of the line “we’ll always have the Laundromat”?