- First broadcast: Thursday 15 November 1990, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 12 January 1998, BBC2
- Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
- First draft: Jeff Martin
- Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
- Storyboard: Steven Dean Moore
- Animation director: Rich Moore
Ned Flanders had appeared fleetingly in season one of The Simpsons, but it wasn’t until six episodes into season two that viewers got a proper taste of Homer’s relationship with his stoically gregarious yet dependably irksome next-door neighbour. Flanders’ brief cameo in The Call of the Simpsons hinted at something special, but in Dead Putting Society his character is moved centre stage, fleshed out with toothsome detail and – most importantly – given equal billing with Homer for the first time.
An escalating feud between Homer and Flanders crescendos when both men enrol their respective sons Bart and Todd in a tournament of miniature crazy golf. It sounds pedestrian fare, and it certainly operates on a smaller scale than previous episodes, but there is absolutely nothing low-key or underwhelming about the way in which this joyous plot unfolds. Homer and Ned’s over-the-fence nit-picking builds to a genuinely gripping climax through tightly-scripted confrontations sequenced in such a way to generate a giddying sense of momentum. Homer’s rage remains comic rather than grotesque, while Flanders’ idiosyncrasies are fresh enough to never once become tedious. 8
What a splendid creation is Ned. Brimming with serene zealotry, fulsome self-content and insurmountable fervour, he is the perfect person to have living just a few yards from a man whose unquenchable stubbornness ensures he is forever unable to see that he actually has far more in common with his God-fearing “neighbourino” than he dares admit. That stubborn streak is in evidence from the off, with Homer furious the moment we see him, hunched over a lawn-mower that seems to date from the 1930s. His exasperation never lets up, even when he finds Flanders posting a conciliatory note under his front door. Yet Flanders – here at least – is willing to match Homer’s hectoring when it suits him; witness the way the pair more or less goad each other into making a bet on the outcome of the golf contest, with the loser having to wear his wife’s best Sunday dress.
Everyone else (including the rest of Flanders’ family) plays second fiddle to this double act, though Lisa has some sweet scenes with Bart when helping him improve his golf technique, especially when he’s refusing to take seriously her attempt at meditation (“Become like an uncarved stone…” “Piece of cake!”). It’s the best portrayal of their relationship since Krusty Gets Busted. 9
Locations and design
Flanders’ house is simply enormous: a catacomb of tastelessness, its rooms furnished from floor to ceiling with gaudy trinkets and unselfconscious chintz. In a resemblance entirely lost on its occupants – and deliberately so – the master bedroom looks like a bordello:
– while the basement (the “rumpus room”) seems to have been flown in direct from Las Vegas:
No wonder Homer is jealous. Presumably the teetotal Ned has installed a working bar (with beer on tap) precisely for receiving visitors – which, rather nicely, is just the kind of touch guaranteed to rile Homer even more. The other triumph of the episode is the crazy golf course, or to give it its correct name:
The novelty holes are inspired: we see, among others, a working windmill, an Eiffel tower, the nuclear power plant, a gorilla with rotating arms:
a crocodile with boxing gloves:
and best of all…
It’s almost the funniest thing in the entire episode. 8
Pardon My Zinger
Almost but not quite, because the funniest thing in the whole episode is Homer sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by his family, reading out – between gales of laughter – the letter of apology he has received from Flanders: “‘You are my brother… I love you… and yet I feel a great sadness… in MY BOSOM’!” Homer is in hysterics, Bart and Lisa are howling (“Read the bosom part again, dad!”) and even Marge has to leave the room for a private giggle. Their shared hilarity at Ned’s turns-of-phrase – “Bosom!” – is a treasure. Other highlights in a joke-heavy episode include Homer encountering his rival’s family on the golf course, heads bent in worship, and snapping: “Hey Flanders: it’s no use praying, I already did the same thing and we can’t both win!” There’s also his grouchy response to Lisa’s dream of coming first in a maths contest and winning a protractor (“Too bad we don’t live on a farm”) and his unceasing battles with Bart’s complete disdain for the entire idea of a golf contest: “Give your putter a name.” “Er… Mr Putter?” “YOUR PUTTER’S NAME IS CHARLENE.” Even Flanders gets some zingers, the best being his late-night call to Reverend Lovejoy (“Probably stepped on a worm,” Lovejoy grumbles). “I threw a man out of my house today,” Ned panics, “I feel like I violated Matthew 19:19!” “Huh?” replies Lovejoy. “Love thy neighbour!” “Oh, oh, Matthew 19:19,” Lovejoy bluffs. 8
There are none, though Dan Castellaneta is so convincing as the golf tournament’s plummy English radio commentator – “This is the most stirring display of gallantry and sportsmanship since Mountbatten gave India back to the Punjabs!” – as to make you think otherwise. A neutral 5.
Another newcomer joins season two’s ever-expanding list of maestros. Ray Colcord was probably best known in 1990 for his work as a session musician with the likes of Lou Reed, Don McLean and Aerosmith, and for providing the score for NBC’s sitcom My Two Dads: arguably not the most promising of CVs. Yet he delivers one of the best scores so far this season. The stirring trumpet flourishes at the opening of the golf tournament are a nod to Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, while the Far Eastern-sounding twangs and burblings that accompany Lisa’s schooling of Bart fit the mood of those scenes exactly. There are some entertainingly overblown cues to punctuate Homer and Ned’s equally overblown quarrelling as well. 7
Landed with a script that requires him to start at the level of steaming fury and work upwards, Castellaneta turns in his most compelling performance to date.
He manages to make Homer’s anger neither tedious nor contrived, instead forever finding new ways of sounding titanically pissed off at Flanders, from mild pedantry (“There’s nothing wrong with crab grass, it just has a bad name!”) all the way through to guttural envy (“KNOCK IT OFF! Your wife’s butt is higher than my wife’s butt!”). Shearer rises to the occasion superbly: “‘Afraid not, infinity!” Castellaneta/Homer roars at a particular heated moment; “‘Afraid so, infinity PLUS ONE!” Shearer/Flanders retorts exquisitely. Shearer gives Ned a pride in every sentence, even at the man’s lowest ebb, ensuring the character, though often pitied, is never pitiful. In a virtuoso episode, even Nancy Cartwright gets it spot on and pitches Bart a couple of tones lower than before, suddenly sounding like the Bart in every great episode you remember. 8
Rich Moore has great fun on the golf course, finding numerous imaginative ways of depicting the novelty holes, ratcheting up the tension with increasingly brutal edits, and even trying point-of-view shots inside the holes:
There’s one moment during the climax of the tournament as the judges are just about to declare the winner and the audience is agog, when Moore briefly cuts back to Lincoln’s motorised scissor-legs:
The effect is sublime. Elsewhere there’s a great bit of framing when Bart is in his bedroom staring at a photo of Todd, attempting to work himself up into a lather of loathing, when the camera pulls out to show the real Todd at the window, casually waving hello:
The way Bart pops up at his window at the episode’s start to make a few quips at his dad’s expense is also smartly done:
And you can never go wrong with a shot through a glass of milkshake. 7
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
A bit of a disappointment. The title, Dead Putting Society, is one of those examples of a pun being used not because the source has some constructive bearing on its new context, but because one word (poets) sounds a little like another (putting): the refuge of the lazy scriptwriter. The only other homage comes in the form of a few nods to The Karate Kid, most blatantly in the scene where Bart stands motionless on top of a dustbin in the same meditative pose as that held by Daniel LaRusso on the film’s poster:
Not so much a spoof as an unsubtle steal. 3
Emotion and tone
Given this story is essentially one long roar, there’s no danger of inconsistent tone or lack of emotion. Homer’s eruptions are staggered, however, so we’re never overloaded with bile. Some well-timed interludes come in the shape of Bart’s escapades with Lisa and also Marge’s attempts to temper her husband’s spleen (“Homer, I couldn’t help overhearing you warp Bart’s mind.” “And?”). Marge describing herself as Homer’s best friend is a small point but counts for an awful lot in an episode as hectic as this. Above all, you never believe Homer’s anger is anything less than painfully sincere. And despite both neighbours ending up in drag, the script ensures Homer is unable to derive any pleasure from seeing Ned humiliated, as he concludes:
A memorable finale. 9
A cracking opening round in Homer’s epic struggle for supremacy over the Flandererers. The script has the courage and wit to ensure your attention is never allowed to stray far from a quarrel that manages to be both ludicrously obsessional yet somehow reassuringly universal.