Ned Flanders is, in almost every conceivable respect, a better person than Homer Simpson. He’s a better father. He’s a better husband. He’s a better neighbor, a better Christian, a better citizen, and an all-around better human being.
Yet we root for Homer in his endless, one-sided Cold War against the world’s most indefatigably chipper next door neighbor all the same, in part because Ned either doesn’t acknowledge or doesn’t realize that underneath Homer’s cutting remarks lies genuine rage, rather than affection.
Actually, that’s a pretty big question in terms of the series, so I’ll throw it out to you guys: Does Ned realize how much Homer hates him, or does the idea that Homer might hate him through no fault of Ned's own clash so violently with the way Ned sees the world (as a realm of infinite kindness ruled over by his good buddy Jesus) that he can’t begin to comprehend Homer’s hatred for him?
The other reason we don’t hold Homer’s contempt for Ned against him is because Ned seems like he can take whatever abuse Homer dishes out; indeed, Homer seems to pick on Ned precisely because Ned is stable, successful and secure enough not to let Homer’s rapacious envy get to him. Within the context of The Simpsons, Ned is almost always winning, albeit in a non-decidedly Charlie Sheen-like fashion: He’s always bubbling over with excitement and anticipation over even the most trivial things. Nothing can get him down. Well, almost nothing, as we learned in “When Flanders Failed.”
In the audio commentary for the episode, one of the producers mentions that his mother complained that Homer was too mean in the episode. The writers and producers agreed: Homer is the hero of the series, and it’s hard to root for a guy whose biggest wish is literally for the salt-of-the-earth living saint next door to suffer terribly for the sin of being more successful than him.
The episode’s title succinctly sums up why it’s harder to root for Homer in this episode than in just about any other: “When Flanders Failed.” It’s one thing to root against a man who’s winning. That’s just some good old fashioned schadenfreude (a phrase The Simpsons taught America in this episode). But to root for a man who’s teetering on the precipice of complete doom, as Homer does here before a last-act change of heart, that’s borderline unforgivable. That's not just jerky or mean: It's cruel.
In “When Flanders Failed,” Homer bitterly opts out of attending a barbecue next door where Ned announces his plans to start The Leftorium, a specialty store that traffics exclusively in goods and services for southpaws.
Dreams are sacrosanct in our culture. Is there anything more American than risking it all to pursue a dream? So it seems borderline heretical that when Homer gets the winning half of a wishbone, he wishes first for Ned to go broke, then lose his job, then die, before finally pulling back and acknowledging that his vicious fantasies had gone “too far.”
Harry Shearer does phenomenal voice work here as Ned’s sunny dreams of running a thriving small business give way to mounting hopelessness, and his innate exuberance is tempered by the weary recognition that failure is suddenly an option, that he can be pure of heart and say his prayers at night and still fail miserably in a business with little use for sentimentality.
In the b-story, Bart plays hooky from karate class, but Homer and Ned’s love-hate relationship (Ned loves Homer, Homer hates Ned) dominated this episode.
For the second week in a row, The Simpsons tapped into the heartwarming oeuvre of Frank Capra for its conclusion. In a deliberate replay of It’s a Wonderful Life, the people of Springfield band together to save Ned’s business in a Homer-instigated orgy of high-minded consumerism.
In the audio commentary, the writers cynically point out that the episode subscribes to a formula the show has returned to over and over again: 21-and-a-half minutes of overwhelmingly dark, cynical, caustic, and very funny comedy tapped off by 30 seconds of uplift that leave audiences with a warm, fuzzy glow.
The writer/producers don’t seem to hold the episode in high regard; looking at it over a decade after the fact, all they see are animation errors and a script cobbled together at the last minute, but I think they minimize a pretty spectacular achievement that fleshes out Homer and Ned’s relationship, while commenting trenchantly on how jealousy poisons the jealous just as much as, if not more than, the object of their envy.