#19: Dead Putting Society

Season 2: Episode 6. Original airdate: November 15, 1990.

[Note: I went home to visit my parents this weekend, and left my first disc from Season 2 at my apartment. Luckily, this was the only episode that’ll be affected by my stupidity. I had to track down a stream of this one, since I didn’t want to find the entire season through “other means,” so I eventually used some link with Russian subtitles. Thanks, Russia!]

I guess I’ve mentioned this on my About page, but “Dead Putting Society” forces me to reiterate something—I go to Brigham Young University. I like going to school there well enough, but it brings out some of the worst aspects of my personality, or what I call my “Toby” complex. That’s of course a reference to The Office and Michael Scott’s unabashed hatred for his HR rep, Toby Flenderson. Michael hates Toby for no apparent reason other than the fact that he works in HR, and I feel the same way about many of my classmates. There are always at least a handful of guys in every class I take that I call Tobys (or Riches, for any Community fans out there): they’re nice, they’re smart, they’re beloved by women and professors, and they’re pretty much better than me in every visible way. I guess it’s a part of Mormon culture to have these paragons of excellence murking around, but it still grinds my gears ceaselessly.

I think I’m going to have to start calling those dudes Flanders(es?), because more than any aforementioned pop culture example, Homer’s relationship with Flanders is a direct parallel to what I deal with every day. It’s not that I hate these guys for something they’ve done to me, it’s just for being too damn good at life. Does that make me a massive jerk? Sure, but at least I know I’m in good company with Homer. His contempt for Flanders is completely justified in my mind, but serves as a wish fulfillment for most Americans. We’re told not to envy our neighbors, but come on—there’s not a person in the history of the planet that has never thought about it. What makes Homer’s loathing so much more powerful is Flanders’ inherent goodness. He truly is as nice a guy as he comes off as, without an ounce of insincerity in his body.

With that said, there are some weird characterizations that Flanders takes on in this episode. For one, he drinks. I understand that his exotic beers are yet another way of showing that he’s better than Homer, but the Flanders that would eventually form would never dare touch alcohol, which I think is an even more effective way to get under Homer’s skin. To Homer, having Flanders use his teetotaling as a seeming moral high ground would be far more irksome than Flanders being a have to his have-not. I also think the Flanders that the series settles on functions better as being a perfect specimen of human morality, instead of being the Jones that Homer must try to keep up with, as he is here and in “The Call of the Simpsons.”

As is probably apparent, I find the Homer/Flanders dichotomy of this episode far more interesting than the Bart storyline, which really is just a device used to exacerbate Homer’s rivalry. Before the golfing plot kicks in, there are some great bits from the various members of the Simpson family. When Marge offers Homer juice instead of beer, his “don’t toy with me, woman!” is a perfectly-played line that works gangbusters in context. Even better is the family’s inability to contain their laughter as Homer reads Flanders’ apology note, with even Marge trying desperately to retain her motherly composure and leaving the kitchen to snicker. This episode is full of those little character moments, and I love that these small jokes are so effective this early on in the show’s run.

Once Homer ropes Bart into competing against Todd Flanders in the golf tournament, the episode settles into a pleasant Karate Kid riff for its middle act. Even though Homer is the one pushing Bart to compete, his only methods of coaching are a) yelling, and b) demanding Bart name his putter, eventually forcing “Charlene” as the title. On the converse of that hateful, angry coaching, Lisa becomes Bart’s Mr. Miyagi and trains him in the ways of meditation and serenity. Bart’s expression when he suddenly contemplates the “if a tree falls in a forest?” riddle is priceless, as are all the interactions between the two siblings that have been few and far between so far.

When the final miniature golf tournament finally arrives, Bart and Todd find themselves in the final round together. Lisa’s Miyagi treatment has done Bart wonders, and he puts up a solid fight against Todd, who the hilariously-taking-his-job-too-seriously announcer comments that Todd is “one of the most skilled ten year olds to ever take up the blade.” Homer and Flanders are egging each other on through the entire match, which culminates at a hole designed around an enormous Abraham Lincoln whose legs open and shut femininely to reveal the hole while the Great Emancipator retains his stoic expression. Take a moment to let that imagery sink in—let its incredibleness consume you and overwhelm you, because you’ll see few things as awe-inspiring in your life.

The boys realize the silliness of the endeavor and call the match a draw, in a touching moment of sons teaching their fathers humility. The announcer is also moved, tearfully proclaiming the moment “the most stirring display of gallantry and sportsmanship since Mountbatten gave India back to the Punjabs.” Flanders returns to his senses and is touched by the boys’ selflessness. Homer, on the other hand, demands that he and Flanders follow through on a bet they agreed to, that the father of the boy who “doesn’t win” (a Flanders amendment, as he deems “losing” to be a bummer of a term) has to mow his lawn in his wife’s Sunday dress. Even though Flanders offers to void the wager, Homer demands that it be honored, as he wants to see Flanders humiliated in front of every one even if it means his own embarrassment.

To Homer’s chagrin, Flanders is his gleeful self during the punishment, recalling old fraternity stories and laughing at himself. The disdain Homer holds for Flanders will never be resolved, and for good reason. Just like with my nameless classmates, Homer doesn’t hate Flanders because of his material possessions, he hates him because he knows Flanders is the better man. This episode takes some clunky steps to get to that point, but by the end has established the Flanders that has endured for all these years.

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