“Homer Loves Flanders” (season 5, episode 16; originally aired 03/17/1994)
Ned Flanders has the patience of a saint. He is saintly in many other respects as well. In a comedy world where true believers like Ned are generally caricatured as hypocrites, Ned is the real deal, a genuinely decent man whose excessively public faith represents an honest belief in Christ and his teachings and a sincere love for his fellow man.
That’s an altogether more subversive, challenging and rewarding take on Christian fundamentalism than lazily ridiculing bible-thumpers as phonies whose public protestations of holiness clash with their private indiscretions. Ned is such a thoroughly good dude that when, in the climactic moment of "Homer Loves Flanders", Homer climactically tells Flanders' fellow parishioners that if everyone was like Ned there would be no need for heaven, since there would be heaven on earth, it rings true before a moment’s reflection indicates that a world of nothing but Christian fundamentalists would not, in fact, be heaven on earth, especially for Jews like myself.
Ned has some of the saintly gentleness of Mr. Rogers; he is the Mr. Rogers of The Simpsons universe, a kindly, patient and benevolent man who loves children and all living creatures. He even loves Homer, a Job-like test of faith if ever there was one, despite Homer’s longstanding and consistent hatred for him. Ned can handle Homer’s insults. He can handle Homer’s thefts and thoughtlessness and toddler-like indifference to anything outside his own needs. But can he handle Homer’s friendship? That is the trenchant question behind “Homer Loves Flanders.”
In “Homer Loves Flanders” the central dynamic is ingeniously reversed. Usually, Flanders’ sunny attempts to wiggle his way into Homer’s heart through unrelenting kindness provokes vitriolic rage in a neighbor who never stops being annoyed and aggravated by Flanders’ piousness. In this episode, however, it’s Homer who drives Flanders nearly to the point of snapping by being friendly in the most exhausting, unbearable way.
In both instances, excessive kindness provokes anger and resentment. In Homer’s case, however, the rage is patently unmotivated. It’s provoked by an unseemly combination of jealousy (Ned seems to casually master everything while he bumbles drunkenly through life) and personality conflicts more than anything legitimate whereas Flanders is understandably vexed to the point of insanity by a “friendship” that more often resembles low-level psychological warfare, however well-intended Homer might be.
Ah, but we are once again getting ahead of ourselves. “Homer Loves Flanders” opens with Springfield in the grips of football fever. The whole town is in a tizzy to score tickets to the big game so inveterate pigskin buff Homer is apoplectic when Flanders ends up winning a pair of tickets to the big game on a radio show.
“Homer Loves Flanders” is filled with wonderful moments of Homer being adorably obnoxious in his child-like obliviousness. After Homer discovers Flanders won the tickets to the game, for example, he stews for just a moment before he gets so wrapped up and excited about “Two Tickets To Paradise” playing on the radio that he immediately forgets that that the song is directly referencing his intense psychological heartache from ten seconds earlier.
Homer at first decides to procure Flanders’ tickets by smashing him over the head with a pipe and then stealing them before ultimately deciding on a less violent course of action by simply accepting Flanders’ offer to go to the game with him. At the big game, Homer’s attitude towards Flanders begins to shift and the dynamic of their relationship starts to reverse when Flanders impresses Homer with a simple but genuine act of kindness: giving him the game ball a football player in Ned’s bible study gave him as a thank-you gift for helping him in his spiritual journey.
In one of the many great Homer lines/moments littering the episode, Homer looks loving at the football as if it were a newborn baby and purrs happily, “Now I have four children. You will be called Stitchface.” The gift puts Flanders conclusively over the tipping point in his decades-long attempts to forge a friendship with Homer against Homer’s fervent wishes.
The once recalcitrant Homer now looks at his friendship with Ned as a shiny new toy he can play with and abuse until he tires of it and throws it away. He breaks Flanders’ pool table with his excessive girth. “They don’t call me Springfield Fats just because I’m morbidly obese,” he offers just before demolishing the table.
At this point, “Homer Loves Flanders” begins to suggest What About Bob, with Homer in the Bill Murray role and Flanders in the Richard Dreyfuss role of a straight man driven to distraction by the soul-crushing obnoxiousness of a man who just wants to be his friend and makes him suffer mightily for that desire.
The episode ratchets up Flanders’ annoyance and irritation with Homer gradually and methodically, littering it with wonderful details like the “Rapping Ronnie” tape Homer puts on during a long car ride, as oblivious to the feelings and thoughts of his traveling companions as he is everything else.
“Homer Loves Flanders” delves into bracingly dark places. The episode stands as an early indication that behind his happy-go-lucky façade, Flanders is more troubled and damaged than he lots on. Getting irritated with Homer is understandable; Hell, Homer would test the patience of Jesus himself, but not everyone would fantasize about murdering a bunch of onlookers he has cursed with Homer’s face.
Ned tries to embody Christ’s love but even he wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and must admit to himself, “I think I hate Homer Simpson.” Finally Flanders explodes in church and angrily takes Homer to task for breathing obnoxiously, causing the parishioners to turn on Flanders before Homer climactically comes to his defense with a stirring affirmation of the Ned we’ve all come to know and love before he was afflicted with the plague of Homer’s friendship.
“Homer Loves Flanders” is a lot more meta than early episodes of The Simpsons. When Homer befriends Flanders, for example, Lisa reassures Bart that things will soon be back to normal with a miniature monologue that winkingly betrays the existential state of sitcom characters when she explains, “Don’t worry, Bart. It seems like every week something odd happens to the Simpsons. My advice is to ride it out, make an occasional smart aleck quip and by next week we’ll be back to where we started from, ready for another wacky adventure.”
The ending of the episode pays off this speech with a denouement that once again finds Homer enraged at Flanders and the family faced with a premise that plays like a parody of hacky sitcom plots because it is: Homer inheriting a haunted house from his uncle Boris. I’ve long found meta-textual gags on The Simpsons to be a bit of a crutch, as a way of winking at the hoariness of the sitcom form and its conventions while recycling them, and “Homer Loves Flanders” is strong enough that it doesn’t need that kind of an out.
Early in “Homer Loves Flanders”, before the plot kicks in, Kent Brockman sternly informs viewers, “Just miles from your doorstep, hundreds of men are given weapons and trained to kill. The government calls it “The Army” but a more alarmist name would be “The Kill-Bot Factory”over menacing images of American soldiers in action.
It’s a clever joke spoofing the scare-mongering, hyperbolic nature of local news but it also puts a familiar and accepted institution like The Army into a bizarre and terrifying new light. To make people see things they thought they knew and understood in a whole different way: that is the genius of great satirists like Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin and The Simpsons as well. It deserves to be included in that rarified company. It’s that good, or at least it was, at its best.
- If nothing else, I would love “Homer Loves Flanders” for introducing the phrase “Sacrilicious" into the vernacular
- Homer’s Nacho Man dance is one of my favorite things, ever
- This was apparently the last episode pitched by Conan O’Brien, who is a pretty funny dude.
- So many great, bitterly dark jokes about the Springfield/Shelbyville rivalry. My favorite is either Shelbyville dosing Springfield’s water with LSD and Springfield retaliating against Shelbyville for building the world’s biggest pizza by burning down city hall.
- “Excellent guitar riff.”—Homer Simpson, music critic, on “Two Tickets To Paradise.”
- I apologize for the lack of clips on this one. Dave Anthony is still recovering from getting hit by a car so everyone keep him in their thoughts.
- Next up is “Bart Gets An Elephant.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.