(originally aired February 13, 2000)
In 1999, Maggie Roswell had a falling out with FOX regarding a pay dispute. This left the show in a minor pickle; while it’s not as devastating as losing one of their big six performers, Roswell still voiced her share of memorable characters, including Helen Lovejoy and Maude Flanders. It’s not exactly the hugest problem though; her roles were at best tertiary, and keeping them mostly silent with a recurring replacement guest voice every now and then wouldn’t have been too difficult to pull off. But instead, this gave the writers the opportunity to pull off a big fat gimmick episode and kill off Maude. I remember the promotion for this show, making a big deal that someone from the cast was going to die, and that it could be anyone. Rumor had it it was going to be one of Marge’s sisters, but it had already leaked that it was Maude. There’s something about this episode that’s terribly misguided, perhaps linked to the circumstances that led to its inception. It doesn’t feel like a story they particularly wanted to tell, and it’s certainly clear they can’t handle the heavy subject matter. All in all, it’s just incredibly clumsy.
Let’s start with talking about what killing off Maude means. Though his role has shifted slightly over time, Ned and the Flanders flock have represented everything Homer and his family is not. They’re loving, well-off financially, and things always seem to go their way. Ned always has a smile on his face and a kind word to say to his neighbor-eeno, as Homer toils away at a job he hates, with kids who don’t respect him and the butt end of fate’s cruel, cruel jokes. But in killing Maude off, Ned is cut down a peg, his happy life burnt to cinders. He can no longer play this role anymore, and must be reborn in a way. …he hasn’t, but this gave the writers the opportunity to build on this character in the future. …they didn’t, but that’s news for another time. So this could have been an interesting role reversal show, where Ned at his time of need takes solace in the dysfunctional Simpson family, who need to work together to get him on his feet and help him move on. Instead we get bonehead Homer making him a dating tape and hiding out in mailboxes.
Things just feel so haphazard here, and the way in which they deal with Maude’s death is so crass. I don’t mean to bring the tone down, but this blog is about my specific reaction to each show, and having not seen this one in years, re-watching it struck me in a different way. My mother passed away last fall, and seeing this definitely brought up parallels. Some of Ned’s behavior reminded me of my dad, struggling of what to do with his life and how he could move on. But with stuff like the “Let ‘Er R.I.P.” T-shirt and Homer’s jerky behavior through the whole show, the episode felt so wrong, like it didn’t even try to blend the jokes with the serious story. I felt offended with how terribly out of place some of these bits were and the tonal clash they created. Now, don’t get me wrong, any subject is fair game for comedy. Hell, this show has done fabulous shows about death in the past. Episodes like “Old Money” and “‘Round Springfield” were thoughtful portrayals of how the death of loved ones affects us, and how we can make due with life without them, and on top of that, communicated all that in a funny way. What does this episode communicate? I haven’t a clue. If there’s any episode I can point to that truly shows how far the series has fallen, it may be this one. Sure, “Saddlesore Galactica” is absolute shit, but this is what the series now considers to be a meaningful, emotional episode. Play this one back to back with one of the episodes I just mentioned, and the differences could not be more stark. The former is a brilliant show, and the latter just has no idea what the hell it’s doing.
Tidbits and Quotes
– A lot of these set pieces in these later episodes are kind of hard to talk about, since there’s not that much there that’s funny or memorable. Lisa is shocked to find part of the nature reserve has been gutted to build a new racetrack. So, they proceed to cross the road while race cars are speeding down it. I can see Homer doing this, but the others? The animals adapting to their new environments, racer Clay Babcock, the stuff at the actual race itself… I got nothing. It’s only offensive in that it’s not funny. The only good bit at the race was this exchange between Ralph and Chief Wiggum upon seeing Homer shirtless (“Mommy has bosoms like that!” “Yeah, I wish.”)
– Okay, so Maude’s death. I guess I don’t have a problem with the ridiculously absurd reason for her demise. I do take great issue that Homer is indirectly responsible, but only in that it’s another sizable example of them setting something up and doing nothing with it. Even someone as thick as Homer has to realize that he was accidentally responsible for someone dying (don’t bother bringing up “Homer’s Enemy,” as that context is totally different). As such, you’d think this would affect him in some way. Maybe make his overenthusiastic desire to help Ned is a response to this sense of guilt. But instead Homer remains locked in jerk mode; even at his nicest, he still feels like a creepy weirdo. Plus the great joke about Homer parking in the ambulance space at the hospital delaying resuscitation that could have saved Maude’s life. That may be the worst line in the history of the series. Homer is basically a reprehensible monster at this point.
– The funeral also feels so wrong. Instead of being meaningful, it just becomes a big meta commentary about how Maude was a tietiary character… in life, and is one of the few major changes that has happened to the series like Apu getting married and having kids and the Van Houtens breaking up. It felt pathetic, like the writers crowing, “Look at all this stuff we changed! Aren’t we innovative!” Also the Fandamonium girls being there felt really wrong. They made a joke about it being part of their settlement due to the accident, but how inappropriate. It’s a cruel joke that maybe would work if it were geared toward a dislikable character, but Ned? The people indirectly responsible for his wife’s death are at her funeral, shooting off the very shirts that killed her. And Homer finally gets his fucking shirt with a fucking crass slogan on it and is oh so satisfied. Fuck this show.
– There are glimmers of Homer being a nice guy here, like when he tucks Flanders in the first night, but it immediately flips back to him wanting to chuck rocks at him (and pocketing some in case he needs them for later).
– One of the few, few laughs here is the zoom-in on Ned’s pin number during Homer’s dating video. Which is then ruined by the next scene, Ned in the shower with pixellation obscuring his seemingly large genitals, a completely tasteless scene.
– I guess we get some foreshadowing to the whole Nedna thing here. …wait, what the hell am I saying, foreshadowing? That implies it was planned that they would get together, not another gimmicky ass pull. The scene’s not funny anyway.
– Ned’s crisis of faith and falling out with God is another interesting plot turn that could have happened in this episode. It could have been great; the senseless death of his wife being the thing that breaks Ned, turning his back on the Almighty, and the citizens of Springfield needing to bring him back. But no, we’ll just make a quick joke out of it. No sense in doing a show about actual character development when we can have more silly Homer antics.
– So if this is the boat we’re in, Ned could do worse than Rachel Jordan. She reappeared next season in a wholly disposable episode, so she doesn’t have much in the way of character, but she could have. So we have our “hopeful” ending (“My name’s Ned Flanders, and I’m here every week. Rain or shine,”) with the writers hoping to garner some sentiment, but all it does is remind me how little there actually was. And in case you weren’t annoyed already, we end on a final song bit from Miss Jordan (“It’s a show about Ned/About him losin’ his sweet wife/She landed on her head/But now it’s time to get on with his life.”) Jesus Christ, fuck you guys. FUCK YOU.