38. When Flanders Failed

"bart"

“Hey Bartly-boobly!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 3 October 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 1 December 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Raymie Muzquiz, Kevin O’Brien
  • Animation director: Jim Reardon

When Flanders Failed was produced during season two then held back to help pad out the opening weeks of season three. It should probably have been held back even longer, as it’s the kind of episode that would have benefited from being buried in the middle of winter rather than shoved out just a fortnight after the season premiere. A slight tale with a narrow focus, it can’t help but feel diminished by following on directly from a noisy pantomime about Michael Jackson and a hectic satire about the United States Congress.

Plot
When we last left Homer and Flanders they were wearing dresses while mowing the lawn. We rejoin them still bickering about cutting the grass, though now in their usual clothes. Much humming and hawing ensues as Homer’s opinion of his neighbour deteriorates steadily through scorn, jealously, rage and finally malice, ending with him trying to single-handedly destroy Ned’s attempt to launch a shop for left-handed people. Naturally it all comes good in the end and Homer mends his ways, if not his fences. But the damage has already been done. When Homer is angry at Ned it’s funny because it’s so petty and harmless; when he is cruel towards Ned it’s just unpleasant. 5

Characters
The petty anger is in full cry during act one, and this is the best chunk of the episode. Homer is like a grumpy child who can’t understand why nobody else wants to join in his feuding, branding Marge “president of the international We Love Flanders fan club” and throwing a strop when everyone else goes off to Ned’s barbecue. “What if I was dead from not eating?” he moans to the dog while the others are wolfing down the Flanders’ hospitality. Later his passive malevolence turns active and that’s when things go wrong. To be fair Homer’s reaction at seeing Ned suffer genuine pain is one more of confusion than whooping with joy. His conscience comes out of hibernation only when the Flanders’ get so broke they have to live in their car. 4

Locations and design
The Leftorium – which Flanders gets up and running in what seems to be just one weekend – looks just right: impeccably stocked and spotlessly clean, with everything arranged oh-so-neatly and a palpable atmosphere of over-friendly intimidation:

Left to his own devices

Left to his own devices

It’s the perfect embodiment of Flanders, being something it’s easy to admire from afar but the closer you get the more uneasy you become. 8

Pardon My Zinger
Marge has the best line of the episode: “Bart! Don’t use the touch of death on your sister!” Halfway through the story the tone flips briefly from the tragic to the comic when, having bought all of Flanders’ furniture and set it up in his back yard, Homer decides to essay an impersonation of Ned:

MAUDE LOVES NED

MAUDE LOVES NED

There’s similar levity in the exchange between Flanders and Homer when Ned has hit rock bottom. “Even the good book can’t help me now.” “Why not?” “I sold it to you for seven cents!” 6

Special guests
A pity George Takei wasn’t asked back to reprise his role as Akira, who turns up as a karate instructor next door to the Leftorium. Hank Azaria fills in, but it’s not quite the same. 2

Music
Not for the last time in The Simpsons, we’re presented with an episode that ends by the entire cast spontaneously breaking into song and hugging. In this case the song is Put On a Happy Face from the 1960 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie, and it just about works because it’s so daft yet fundamentally good-natured. It’s also the first real bit of upbeat music in the entire story, Alf Clausen having spent the previous 20 minutes wheeling out every angry and/or morose cue in his armoury. 5

Voices
Harry Shearer’s mastery of Mr Burns’ voice is evident in a smashing cameo when Homer goes to his boss to complain about the choice of snack treats on the shop floor. “NO MORE APPLES IN THE VENDING MACHINE, PLEASE’ Homer writes on a note. Burns completely misunderstands it and, putting on his best mocking tones, coos: “Tell my secretary you can have a free apple – she’ll make everything all right, I promise!” Dan Castellaneta is best as Homer when the character is being idly rude (“Keep your pants on, Flanders!”) rather than mean-spirited (“Hey Flanders, when are your busy hours?”). 6

Animation direction
When this episode came back from the animation studios in South Korea, it was riven with mistakes. Most of these were cleared up in retakes, but some made it into the final version. You can see them most clearly during the opening minutes, when backgrounds look blurred, characters are out of focus and outlines wobble. Jim Reardon and his team do their best but you can’t help being reminded of the early episodes from season one, when it often looked like the animators were having an on-screen spat with the script. Even in act three you get a starry sky that looks like it’s been spattered with spilt milk and a can-opener that turns by itself. On the plus side are the Flanders’ invitation cards:

"The Flanders' are having a beefathon..."

“The Flanders’ are having a beefathon…”

and the duplicate shots of Santa’s Little Helper and Homer salivating at Ned’s barbecue. 4

*drool*

*drool*

*ditto*

*ditto*

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
In a cultural reference surely more familiar over here than in America, the episode’s title When Flanders Failed is a deliberate play on the name of Wilfred Owen’s war poem In Flanders Fields. As much as you’d like there to be some deep-meaning affiliation between the two, sadly there is absolutely no connection other than they both contain the word “Flanders”. More convincing is the mini-fantasy Homer enjoys at the barbecue when, about to pull a wishbone with Ned, he tries to decide what to wish for. 5

"Hahahahahahaha"

“Hahahahahahaha”

"Too far."

“Too far.”

Emotion and tone
The Homer v Flanders relationship would be revisited many times in future episodes, sometimes beautifully and sometimes gratuitously. Here it’s done thoughtlessly. Homer’s behaviour is too base to ever be entirely convincing. It’s not diluted with enough self-awareness or absurdity to sustain a comic tone. You do feel sorry for Flanders and his family, but in a sheepish way rather than a stream of unabashed emotion. At least the Leftorium lives to see another day. 2

Verdict: 47%
Not one for members of the international We Love Flanders fan club.

One thought on “38. When Flanders Failed

  1. The sign for “Flander’s STUPID Left-Handed Shop” is the best thing about ths episode. Just the fact the “STUPID” is the biggest thing on it.

    Like

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