In Dead Putting Society we paradoxically got to see both the Ned Flanders we’ve come to know and love and a Ned Flanders we’d never see again. The Ned Flanders we’ve come to know and love is of course the endlessly patient, benevolent, indefatigably chipper Jesus-loving good neighborarooni. The Ned Flanders we’d never see again is a yuppie beer snob with an elaborate bar and keg in his basement who is disconcertingly comfortable sashaying about in women’s clothing thanks to a frat boy past rich in cross-dressing shenanigans.
The idea of Ned Flanders as a beer snob gushing about the latest Belgium import clashes so violently with his squeaky-clean persona that it’s jarring, if not borderline heretical, to watch Ned delight in the deplorable practice of drinking alcohol. Sobriety and self-restraint are fundamental cornerstones of Ned’s personality. Ned is happy to deny himself everything; Homer is someone who denies himself nothing. Ned is always in control; Homer is ruled by his appetites and rages.
“Dead Putting Society” posits Ned as a beer snob to establish that he’s better than Homer at everything, including drinking beer, when in reality he would abstain from drinking entirely to unconsciously illustrate that he is a better human being than Homer. Heavy drinkers tend to view other’s sobriety as an implicit condemnation of their own drinking. If you feel at all guilty about your own drinking, a colleague’s casually offered, “Thanks, but I don’t drink” sounds uncannily like “Thanks, but I don’t drink, because I am better than you and don’t need a self-destructive crutch like alcohol to help me survive from day to day.”
Actually, Homer sees everything in Ned’s charmed life as an explicit insult, from his wife’s superior ass to the suspiciously non-hatred-based relationship he shares with his son. Homer seems to see Ned’s very existence as an explicit insult and in “Dead Putting Society” the one-sided Cold War between Homer and Stupid Flanders turns red-hot.
The episode begins with Homer being led into Ned’s rec room for the very first time. As always, Ned’s friendliness and complete lack of ego enrage Homer far more than any overt display of hostility ever could. Ned’s hospitality and amiability infuriate Homer to the point where he delivers a tongue-lashing to his long-suffering neighbor. Ned responds with his version of freaking out and losing control: politely but firmly asking Homer to leave.
Homer’s hatred of Ned is both completely unmotivated and eminently understandable. Is there anything more irritating than perfection? There’s a great moment where Homer grouses about the horrible things Ned just said to him and Marge asks for an example. After a pregnant pause he concedes that it wasn’t so much what Flanders said as much as how he said it. Of course we know exactly how Ned said it: sweetly and completely without malice. And that made it all the more maddening.
Ned tries to make amends for his very minor slip in decorum by sending Homer a hilariously overwrought, earnest apology that amuses the Simpsons to no end. Finally, Homer and Ned decide to settle their differences through proxies: Todd and Bart will square off in a miniature golf tournament.
Homer turns into a harsh taskmaster, ordering Bart to glare at a photo of Todd until he’s overflowing with rage and warning Bart that for the first and last time in his life, it’s not O.K to fail. But it’s Lisa who ends up playing Mr. Miyagi to Bart’s Daniel-San in a genial parody of The Karate Kid.
In a reversal of the usual dynamic, the kids show the adults how to behave when they decide to quit at the climax of the tournament rather than giving their misbehaving dads the satisfaction of acting out their hostility through their children. They thwart their dads’ runaway competitive streaks by simply refusing to compete. Rather than finish, they quit simultaneously and tell the score-keeper that they’re equally gifted miniature golf players. Ned and Homer end up in a stalemate of their own; since neither son won, they both end up in dresses, mowing each other’s lawns.
Despite its off-model characterization of Flanders as a beer-loving, gambling ex frat boy, “Dead Putting Society” nevertheless qualifies as a pretty terrific Flanders episode. Every hero needs a great antagonist and Flanders fills that role beautifully, even if he never quite realizes that he’s Homer’s enemy even more than good old Grimey. After last week’s big narrative, today’s episode felt appealingly modest; it was rooted in characterization and subtle little gags, like the undignified way the legs of an Abraham Lincoln obstacle at the mini-golf course swung open girlishly even as the Great Emancipator’s face remained frozen in a rictus of sober contemplation.
“Dead Putting Society” made me think a lot of the Michael Scott/Toby dynamic on The Office, which owes a tremendous debt to the Homer/Flanders relationship though Homer’s hatred of Flanders is a lot more understandable and justified than Michael’s raging hatred of Toby, which, I suppose, is much of the joke. The unhateable: why must they make such good targets for mindless contempt?