97. Homer Loves Flanders

“I don’t need her at all anymore!” 

  • First broadcast: Thursday 17 March 1994, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Thursday 24 December 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: David Richardson
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

This episode has given the world two things of which posterity will surely – and rightly – never grow tired: the word “Flandererses” (as in Homer’s defiant cry: “The Flandererses are not geeks!”); and the animation of Homer passing backwards through a garden hedge. The second of these, if not the first, is guaranteed a life far beyond the point at which The Simpsons finally comes to an end. Like the animation of Abe Simpson in Bart After Dark coming through the door of the burlesque house, seeing his grandson on the front desk and promptly leaving, Homer passing through the hedge has become a universal punctuation mark on social media, able to be inserted into almost any situation. For this if nothing else, Homer Loves Flanders has nudged for all time the horizon of popular culture that little bit wider. It’s also a reminder of how, when The Simpsons is at its very very best, it trades in jokes that have no inbuilt obsolescence and which can instead flourish happily for years afterwards in ever more adaptable contexts. How many times have you found yourself dropping into conversation a casual reference to “lollygaggers” or a “tramampoline”, wondered “now who’s being naive?” or announced: “It takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen”?

This episode pivots around the moment when Flanders offers Homer two tickets to the Pigskin Classic football game. Before this moment, nobody has been driving the plot (6) and Homer has been at the mercy of events. After this moment, Homer is completely in control. For once, he is driving the plot and as such shapes the tone of the rest of the story. How much you enjoy him being in control depends on whether you find his harassment of Flanders charmingly misguided or stubbornly idiotic. The stakes get higher as Homer’s trail of carnage gets longer: wrecking Ned’s billiards table, eating Ned’s dinner, damaging Ned’s boat, destroying Ned’s car… Stubborn idiocy is certainly a recurring (though regrettable) element in Homer’s character in The Simpsons (5); whether it’s something that is amusing or even interesting enough to fill almost an entire episode is a matter of taste.

What’s missing is a scene where Homer acknowledges his stubbornness and gives you a reason to believe in it. With that in place, the havoc he wreaks on Flanders would feel less like juvenile petulance and more like high farce. The best moments of this episode are all those that border on the farcical – Ned finding himself taking a drink-driving test at the very moment a bus full of churchfolk goes past (Wiggum: “Where’s your messiah now, Flanders?”); Homer tiptoeing round to his neighbour to steal the football tickets (“Homer! Are you planning to hit Ned Flanders with that pipe and take his tickets?” “Ye – no!”). The worst moments are when Homer is in control of events yet exercises that control without motive or consequence, wrecking Ned’s car being the lowest of the low. The tone (4) of the episode, which starts very light and knockabout, ends up derisive and even mean-spirited. There are traces of When Flanders Failed, which went wrong the moment Homer’s persecution of Flanders turned from the petty to the cruel.

Yet even while possessed with his feverish intent on inserting himself into every nook of Flanders’ life, Homer retains flashes of his former and less caustic self: his unconfined joy at sharing his Rappin’ Ronnie Reagan tape (“You know something, he did say ‘well’ a lot!”), his lack of inhibition about the outfit he is given at the homeless shelter, and his understandable frustration at how slowly Flanders doles out soup.

It’s on these occasions that Dan Castellaneta’s performance helps save the character from becoming irreparably monstrous – though he’s pipped in the vocal stakes by Harry Shearer, whose performance (9) as Ned shuttles with aplomb between plaintive despair and towering outrage (“Can’t you see this man isn’t a hero, he’s annoying? He’s VERY VERY ANNOYING!”). Shearer also distinguishes one of the most unforgettable sequences of animation (9): Ned’s nightmare of climbing the church tower and massacring the entire town (“There’s Homer! There’s Homer too!”), where visuals and vocals combine perfectly to create a real hiccup of menace.

Before the story pivots in Homer’s direction, the writers give him the best jokes (8) of the episode: his fantasy (9) of himself wearing a wig in the shape of Marge’s hair (“I don’t need her at all anymore!”); his reticence followed by delight at eating the waffle stuck on the ceiling (“I know I shouldn’t eat thee, but… mmm, sacrilcious”); and his total horror at hearing that Flanders has won the tickets. The staging of this particular scene is superb: Homer slumped at his desk in despair, then slumping further when he hears Ned drone on about declaring the tickets for income tax, then perking upright when Two Tickets To Paradise comes on the radio, leading to a few seconds of complete happiness (and the only musical highlight of the episode – 5). It’s the kind of economical, focused humour so missing from stories like Deep Space Homer. Our hero seems much more persuasive when striving to get football tickets than striving to go into orbit. The same goes for the use of locations (9); as far as this story is concerned, the smaller the room, the greater the laughs.

A mention, finally, for cameos from people who have nothing to do with Homer and his relationship with Flanders, but who lift the episode a few points higher (especially as there is no special guest – 5). The very first lines, and some of the finest, are spoken by Kent Brockman: “Tonight on Eye On Springfield! 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!” There’s also Moe’s fear of being unmasked as someone who reads to sick children (“If this gets out, the next words you say will be muffled by your own butt”), and – best of all – the unnamed mutterings that greet Ned as he enters church (“The fallen one!” “Bet he’s the one who wrote ‘Homer’ all over the bathroom!”). These almost make up for the shameless one-two that follows a few minutes later: an expedient reconciliation (“You really are a true friend”) and an even more expedient pushing of the reset button (“Get lost, Flanders”). 69%

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