678. Better Off Ned

Original airdate: March 15, 2020

The premise: Facing expulsion after a potentially disastrous prank, Bart is forced into a mentor ship with Ned Flanders, only to find it incredibly beneficial. Jealous of his son’s new relationship to his most hated neighbor-eeno, Homer decides to become father figure to a despondent Nelson.

The reaction: I guess this is what happens when you smash together elements from previous episodes: a Simpson takes pity on poor little dirt urchin Nelson (“Slumbering With The Enemy”), Bart forms a connection with Ned Flanders (The Simpsons Movie), and Homer and Bart gain new father/son relationships (“Dad Behavior”). The biggest parallel in my mind is “Brother From The Same Planet,” with the exact same premise of Bart gaining a new father figure out of necessity, and Homer gaining a new surrogate son out of pure spite. Despite ostensibly being a Homer/Bart episode, Homer’s bad parenting doesn’t play a role in Bart’s inciting incident involving releasing a fake live grenade during a school assembly. Ned Flanders steps in to save Bart from getting rightfully expelled, promising he’ll get the boy on the straight and narrow. Or rather, he threatens Chalmers to unleash his “Prayer Chain” after he rightfully balks at using prayer and religious teachings to save a public school child. But whatever, there’s no sense complaining about ultra-fanatical religious jokes with Ned coloring him as unlikable when the show’s been doing this for almost twenty years now. Anyway, we first see Ned having Bart wash dishes, which Bart turns into a prank where he “cuts” his hand and squirts ketchup pretending it’s blood. In a serious tone, Ned threatens, “I can turn that into real blood, you little punk!” At this, I thought they were going to revive “Hurricane Neddy” and have this episode culminate in Ned having another mental breakdown trying to manage a hellion like Bart. But this moment is never recalled again, so I guess it was just a joke that Ned threatened to violently attack a ten-year-old. Anyway, a wilderness fishing trip (remember the movie?) instantly turns Bart into a good student and choir boy, just like that, I guess, so that now nine minutes in, our “plot” begins where Homer realizes Bart doesn’t need him, and eventually comes upon a crying Nelson at the dump and decides to mentor him. Again, I can’t help but recall when almost thirty years ago, Homer was the guardian to another sad, poor boy… what was his name? Pepsi? But here, of course, it’s all tell, not show (“Am I going to do it? Is it wrong to take advantage of one child’s feelings to make another child feel bad?”) Also, unlike “Brother,” where Homer took a genuine shining to little Pepi and tried to be a good surrogate dad, here, he seems to not give much of a shit about actually helping Nelson. Even though we previously saw Mrs. Muntz in the first act as the direct source of Nelson’s misery, showing up drunk at the school and passing out in his locker, she later appears to dress Homer down about getting Nelson’s hopes up about being a father figure who won’t abandon him, as so many have done before. Homer eventually tells Nelson the truth, Nelson swears revenge by getting Bart hurt at a prayer parade Ned has him in, and then Homer gets hurt instead and he and Bart have a bonding ride in the ambulance together, and awww ain’t that sweet oh who cares. Al Jean bizarrely has a story credit for this episode, which I can only assume was the result of him falling asleep with “Brother From The Same Planet” playing on Disney+ in the background and thinking he had a great idea for a new episode. Great work, Al.

Three items of note:
– I’ve spoken before about the nature of Bart’s pranks in recent years being a lot more cruel than in the classic years, where we’ve gone from Bart being a rambunctious little boy to just being kind of a little asshole. We just saw it two episodes ago where he forced the town to do his bidding out of fear of having a movie spoiled. We’ve seen him abuse Homer in numerous ways over the last five seasons or so. It just seems like there’s a big difference between painting the lines on the faculty parking lot too close together and fiddling with the water nozzles to mess with Homer’s shower, with recent “pranks” like destroying the SPRINGFIELD sign, psychologically torturing Homer into doing his bidding, and here, bringing a weapon of war into school as a goof. And yeah, Chalmers was this close from expelling him, but comedy or no, in the year 2020, Bart would immediately be expelled and/or arrested for this shit. Considering this incident and Bart tricking Ned into thinking he cut his hand, the episode could have even been about Bart learning not to take things too far, or on how desensitized he’s become to violence, or something like that. But nothing. Those two scenes feel so off for Bart to me. Even his most notorious “last straw” pranks like him using a huge line of megaphones and unleashing town-wise destruction, or flooding the entire gymnasium, feel like kid-appropriate pranks performed with non-malicious intent.
– The Simpson women take two very different approaches in response to the conflict in this episode. Marge, as always, turns an active blind eye to her husband’s emotionally destructive behavior, running back into the house to tend to Maggie (“Where are you, my little excuse?”) But the bigger reaction comes from Lisa, in maybe one of the saddest moments in series history. Seeing Homer at the bar looking the other way as Nelson steals the coins from the jukebox, Lisa offers her father a small stack of cash (“Here’s forty dollars. That’s a lot of money to me. But I want you to get some therapy about what you’re doing.”) Just think about this. This is an eight-year-old girl offering her drunk father sitting at a bar her own money, pleading him to get professional help. This is an absolutely heartbreaking scenario. Fifteen seconds later, we get a joke about Duffman doing Shakespeare. Then we see Homer actually at therapy, the therapist says what he’s doing to those two boys is awful, and then we’re done with that whole conceit. Just dreadful.
– When Bart and Ned have their day-to-night camping trip, I couldn’t help wondering where the hell Rod and Todd were. Remember those kids? One of them was incredibly distraught about his dead mother a couple months ago, until he suddenly wasn’t? They do appear mid-way through helping Ned and Bart with the prayer pride parade or whatever, and then later in the tag, we see the conclusion where Homer has Ned be Nelson’s new sorta foster dad, and the Flanders and Muntz families come together for a nice family meal. The other bullies balk at Nelson giving up the “way of the bully,” to which he replies, “What can I say? People change.” He then reveals he has Milhouse on ice in the freezer (“Thaw! Thaw!”) Sometimes I feel I can barely comment on this shit. They try to have this completely tone deaf happy ending of Nelson finding a caring family, after spending twenty minutes making jokes about him being poor, then try to dangle some kind of characterization in maybe him reforming his ways, but of course he fucking won’t because this series is in cryostasis. This show just sucks so fucking bad, you guys.

One good line/moment: Can I just retire this section again? I think I’ve threatened to do that a few times, but I may finally do it for real-sies. If there’s something truly of notable quality in an episode, I’ll make a point of mentioning it, but otherwise, there doesn’t feel like any real point in doing this part anymore.

17 thoughts on “678. Better Off Ned

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t compare this episode to “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily” which is the classic episode that sprung to mind when it comes to this junk. But yeah, mix that episode and “Brother from the Same Planet” together and foul it up with that pathetic Season 16 episode with Nelson living in the Simpson home and what do you get? Well, you get something but it’s so jumbled up it’s impossible for me to describe it.

  2. “Can I just retire this section again? I think I’ve threatened to do that a few times, but I may finally do it for real-sies. If there’s something truly of notable quality in an episode, I’ll make a point of mentioning it, but otherwise, there doesn’t feel like any real point in doing this part anymore.”

    Ooh, please tell me we get the triumphant return of BLANK!

  3. No no, it’s much more impactful and damning for you to leave up the “one good moment” part and just give it a BLANK.

  4. This is one of those episodes where you’re reminded that this show is thirty years old. I know the writers and producers can’t remember literally every episode they’ve ever done, unless they have encyclopedic knowledge or they’re hardcore fans. But Bart and Flanders bonding was one of the most important parts of the movie. They even reference the fact that the two went fishing in “Left Behind.” So it’s weird to see them attempt this plot when it was done before in a memorable way. What’s worse is they actually have Bart and Flanders fishing in this episode. Maybe if they referenced the movie, it would have worked, but this whole episode feels like they were trying to rip themselves off.

    Is there a way that The Simpsons could have lasted three decades and still be entertaining and creative, while not straying too far from what the core of the show is supposed to be?

    1. They could have, but it would required both a lot of writer turnover and a willingness to embrace change; not change for the sake of change, but the awareness that society will always adapt to different tastes. The bland and timid entries of the mid to late 1980s gave way to urban-focused 1990s and then the “in your face” edge of the late 1990s due to who was dominating the viewership and demographic goalposts. If Zombie Simpsons embraced this literally, we actually would have seen a variant of Poochie become reality in the show’s universe and not a deconstruction of failed focus testing and groupthink during that time period.

      One thing I noticed when I read the poster for “Bart the Bad Guy” was that the majority of staff still on the show has virtually been the same since Season 13, when Al Jean took over. I mentioned a few episodes prior on this blog that this was both when he took over and Fox finally gave up on cancelling the show altogether, giving him a chance to at long last do a victory lap and cementing his vision for the series. Not only has a show lasting this long been unheard of, but a show retaining this crew, as well. That leads to a form of isolationism wherein they form their own bubble of how they interpret the world and anyone or anything that dares intrude said bubble is a violator.

      As for “continuity”; forget it. That’s the ultimate dirty word in the writing room, as it would involve going back, looking at what’s been done, and contemplating offending the will of some imaginary nerd who may go “worst episode ever” upon seeing the episode, even though plenty of critics have long past stopped caring about whether or not the show will ever be good again and will wonder what will become the standard for mediocrity. It’s better to simply recycle old ideas over and over again and pretend it’s the first time something like this happened.

      1. That’s a great point. Back in the show’s classic years, it was constantly embracing change. Honestly, that was one of the reasons the quality was able to stay so high for so long. Many sitcoms have a period of a few seasons where they put out their best episodes before they decline, but The Simpsons was able to do it for almost a decade. But it wouldn’t have happened if the same people were in charge for nine years. Especially back then when it was a lot more demanding to work on the show.

        The writing staff barely changed for the first four seasons, but the tone and sensibilities of the show changed as early as season two. Then Al Jean & Mike Reiss spent the next two seasons molding the show into their image and pushing it into new places. Then after most of the originals left, there was consistent turnover from season five onwards, and I don’t think it really stopped until later on in the Scully era. One thing that made The Simpsons interesting was that it managed to feel fresh and different every two years. The showrunner was vital in creating a specific tone during their run, and the writers they were in charge of helped establish that tone. Even if people hate the Scully era, nobody will mistake it for somebody else’s era. You know you’re getting Mike Scully’s specific interpretation of The Simpsons.

        Al Jean did manage to give the show a slightly different tone when he became the showrunner, but the problem is, that tone has barely changed in twenty years. The only major creative changes have been the transition to HD, Homer becoming less unlikable, and Matt Selman becoming a part-time showrunner. At least when Selman runs the show, you can tell he has his own style. It’s not radically different from Jean’s, but there’s a reason people kept singling out “The Food Wife” and “The Book Job” as really good episodes when they came out.

        The Simpsons has always been the kind of show that responds very strongly to change, positive or negative. When it doesn’t get that change, you end up with this situation where it doesn’t go anywhere. The showrunner is definitely capable and manages to keep things running smoothly every year, but the show itself will never be pushed to any new or interesting places.

    2. There is a way for the show to have continued on. All it would have required was aging the characters up every few years. They really should have moved Bart up into middle school and had stories revolving around that. It also would have helped with Bart’s girlfriend plots and stuff.

      Also, maybe have Mr Burns actually die and leave Smithers in charge of the plant with Smithers trying to figure out how to run the plant with compassion for his workers. Maybe have it slowly turn him mad over the years until he ends up becoming a new Mr Burns.

  5. My problem with this episode is how unsubtle the religious satire is these days. Remember that classic line from Chalmers back in Season 5? “Prayer has no place within these walls, just like facts have no place within organized religion!” Now that’s funny!

    What do we get in this episode? Well, we get a shot of a priest standing behind a sign that says, “Innocent Priest”. Gee, thanks guys, I wouldn’t have been able to tell that was a priest without you telling me.

    1. Actually, as happy as I am to be an atheist, I never loved that line from Chalmers. The first half on its own would have been funny, but the second half is just too unsubtle.

  6. Please Mike, don’t take BLANK away from us. It has almost become quotable, and very useful.
    -What you think of the latest episode of The Simpsons?

  7. I don’t know what to say, but due to this quarantine I am slowly making my way through these episodes and I’m not sure if I’m happy to be doing so, or really hating myself. The episodes from this season have just been utter borefests and yet, I’m find it hard to just delete them if I haven’t watched them. I don’t know, it’s very frustrating.

    So anyway, about this episode… it had two jokes I did laugh at. The one where Homer walks into Flanders’ house to find Lisa watching Bart do his homework in amazement and Ms Hoover’s comment about Bart getting her hopes up about the school being destroyed.

    Other than that, this episode was pretty forgettable. In fact, i watched it an hour ago and I’m already forgetting half of what happened, which seems to be a common trend for this season. If I don’t come on here to talk about it right after I watch it, I forget almost everything about it, which is quite sad.

    Like you, my wife and I also wondered what Rod and Todd were doinng and if they were going to show up. It was nice that they finally remembered such. It was also amazing that the writers remembered Ned is a teacher again. Beyond that, meh, the rest of crap. Nelson is just lame at this point and his mother is utterly disgusting. Why the hell has Nelson not been taken away from her? Well who cares because “it’s funny!”

    Anyway, I lost my thoughts for this episode. It was forgettable and just going through the run time to get to the end. Oh, and what was up with the “The End, Just kidding, we ran short?” That was just stupid.

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