I could write for days on The Simpsons. I’ve entertained the possibility of a recurring feature (like Better Than Cheap, Revisiting my CD Collection and even The Band) where I talk about episodes and moments. I’ve also thought about a personal post on why it’s such an important show to me, and why everything after Season 8 basically doesn’t count. I might still do that, but for now, I’m going to talk about one of my favourite episodes, because I mentioned Ned Flanders in my post about Friends and he’s been on my mind.
Flanders, in some ways, represents the best and worst aspects of The Simpsons. I’ve already spoken about the process of Flanderization, which neatly explains why everything after Season 8 doesn’t count. What The Simpsons lost so dramatically after that point was its heart – for all of its snarkiness and aloof nature, the show had genuinely emotional moments, made all the more poignant by their placement beside the razor-sharp satire of its early years. Were the writers less capable, they might’ve descended into saccharine ‘special moments’, but they were always careful to strike a balance. Early Ned Flanders, with his enviable attitude to life, was a spirit of optimism that contributed to that balance, and gave rise to some of the most hilarious and moving episodes of the show.
I didn’t really understand Homer Loves Flanders (Season 5) when I was a kid. In it, Homer, after years of bitterly rebuffing his neighbour’s friendship, is invited to a football match he desperately wanted to attend. Left with no other option, he goes with Flanders. After the game, Homer realises that Flanders isn’t the smug, superior arsehole he always imagined him to be, and is instead a generous and kind soul. They start spending more time together, and Flanders begins to realise that while he was perfectly happy trying to be Homer’s friend, actually being his friend isn’t nearly as fulfilling. The show plays it fairly straight with the “Homer, for all of his good points, can be pretty rude and annoying” angle for comedy, but I like to see it as an exploration of what might be considered an overly-liberal viewpoint: if you try to be nice and understanding to everyone, sooner or later, someone you don’t like at all is going to want to be your friend. It’s one of those wonderfully subtle but highly relevant little comments that The Simpsons used to have all the time.
Homer continues to annoy Flanders with his unwanted friendship and presumptuous manner (memorably inviting himself to dinner by climbing through the window and eating off everyone’s plates), while gaining the approval of the town community by barging in on Flanders’s charity work and serving soup faster than him – not because of any great passion for helping the homeless, but because he wanted to go home. Eventually, when trying to escape an obsessed Homer’s advances, Flanders is pulled over and given a sobriety test. His church group, passing in a bus, sees him, and under their accusing stares he loses his balance, sealing his fate.
The finale takes place during the Sunday service. Flanders, as a religious man, relies upon his Christian community for support, but when entering the church, he is met only with cold stares and muttering. “The fallen one,” an old lady curses. “Bet he’s the one who wrote ‘Homer’ all over the bathroom,” says another. He’s about to leave, but Homer, ever eager to please, insists that the Flanders family join his, right in the front row for everyone to see.
Reverend Lovejoy steps up to the pulpit and publicly condemns Ned while congratulating Homer. Before he begins his sermon (entitled “What Ned Did”), he asks that the congregation bow their heads in a silent prayer. Silence is difficult for a man like Homer, and his nasal breathing causes Ned to finally crack. Ned stands up in the middle of church and cries “Oh, can’t you see this man isn’t a hero? He’s annoying! He’s very, very annoying!” This, of course, provokes accusations of jealousy and inebriation. Ned looks deeply ashamed while the church closes in around him until Homer steps in the way.
“Stop it!” he shouts. “How dare you talk about Ned Flanders like that? He’s a wonderful, kind, caring man… there have been times when I lost patience with him, even lashed out at him. But this man has turned every cheek on his body. If everyone here were like Ned Flanders, there’d be no need for heaven; we’d already be there.”
As is expected in tv land, everyone immediately feels super bad and apologises to Ned. Happy ending. So what didn’t I get about this when I was a kid?
Well, I didn’t see why Ned should thank Homer for standing up for him. After all, it’s entirely because of Homer’s aggressive rudeness that Flanders was put in this situation in the first place. Had Homer not decided to infringe so brazenly on Ned’s personal life, nothing bad would have happened. It seemed to be a sickly sweet ending that refused to take into account that for 99% of the episode, Homer was the bad guy. I thought it was sloppy writing.
I’ve completely turned around on this, though. I think this is one of the best scenes in the history of television’s best show.
Springfield’s church community is supposed to be forgiving and understanding. Ned has given a lot of himself to it, and presumably received much in return. It is the foundation of his life, and in his weakest moment, they failed him. They were quick to judge, and didn’t wait for an explanation before grabbing their pitchforks and condemning him. In the end, the only person in the whole town who put their reputation on the line to defend him was Homer – the man he’d just publicly denounced as “very, very annoying”.
Homer may not be the easiest person to get along with, and he may not be a paragon of virtue. But after the community apologises, Ned, with tears in his eyes, says simply:
“Thank you so much, Homer. You really are a true friend.”
Friends aren’t necessarily the most entertaining people to be around. They’re the people who’ll stick up for you when no-one else will, the people who at least try to understand that you’re not infallible and that you make mistakes. Regardless of their personal differences, Homer is Flanders’s best friend, because he’s the only person who defended him when it mattered the most.