#38: When Flanders Failed

Season 3: Episode 3. Original airdate: October 3, 1991.

The Ned Flanders of the first two seasons was very much a prototype, one of the few characters the writers didn’t seem to have a handle on from the get-go. He was a little too materialistic, a little too showy, and most importantly, he justified Homer’s hatred of him. I’m not saying Flanders was a raging jerk in those early episodes, but he was far from the absurdly kind ray of sunshine he would become. The “Golden Age” version of Flanders, the one on full display in this episode, doesn’t just work better as a character himself, he also works better as a foil to Homer.

When Homer hated Flanders for showing off his new RV in Season 1, I resented him too. He was the Jones that Homer had to try to keep up with, and it was just too familiar. Instead, Homer’s hatred being somewhat irrational makes it even more fun to watch. As Lisa points out in tonight’s episode, Homer has a fascination with schadenfreude, particularly that of his neighbor. Usually, it works because Flanders is such a swell guy, and because we can relate to Homer’s position as the eternal loser on Evergreen Terrace.

Any flack Homer throws to Flanders bounces right off, which has raised the questions of whether Flanders is actually aware of Homer’s disdain for him, or if hate is so antithetical to his mindset that he’s incapable of even recognizing it. It’s a fascinating dichotomy we’ll explore much more in other episodes, but this one brings up an important question in our perception of Homer—is his relationship with Ned still funny when Flanders isn’t winning?

I started this episode siding with Homer as usual, and could empathize with his not wanting to go to the barbecue featuring “Incredible Ned-ibles.” Sometimes, so much earnestness becomes sickening, and Homer’s not necessarily in the wrong for resisting. But once he follows his nose to the barbecue, things get a little dicey for our hero. Flanders announces that he’s giving up his job to opening a store for left-handed folks called the Leftorium. The store is an insane idea, even for this show, but Ned is simply doing what millions of Americans dream of—abandoning it all and following their passion. Of course, Homer finds the idea deluded, and since it’s Flanders’ idea, he hopes for it to fail miserably.

Homer wishes for it (on a wishbone, no less), sending Ned’s store on the path of destruction. Homer’s incessant need to see the Leftorium fail made me slightly uncomfortable in a way Homer usually doesn’t. There’s something not only pathetic, but tragic about seeing Flanders down and out; it’s against everything that’s supposed to be right in the world. Good men are rewarded for their actions, or so we’re taught. Homer doesn’t do anything particularly worse than normal here, but it’s his blissful ignorance that makes it a bitter pill to swallow.

He has every opportunity to direct his friends, and even his boss, to Ned’s shop, but pushes the charitable thoughts away because of his wish to see Flanders lose. Even though the store proves to be a failure, Flanders maintains his same cheery outlook, even as he sells his belongings (to Homer!) for desperately low prices. Somehow I can’t see the proto-Flanders of earlier episodes maintaining such a faithfully pleasant attitude, and I see that as a testament to the writers finally figuring his character out. The scene when Homer finds the Flanders family living camping in their car is just a heartbreaker, and I almost lose my connection with Homer in that moment.

Thankfully, Homer pulls himself back from the brink and sees the true misery his wish has caused Flanders. He gathers the entire city to save Flanders’ store, giving Ned a victory he truly needed, after he’d lost nearly everything.

The final scene in the Leftorium is a real winner, and Homer learning a lesson feels like a fully-earned moment, even if he’ll forget all about it when he wakes up the next morning. The Flanders/Homer relationship will always be somewhat built on the have/have not distinction, but this episode makes a huge leap in adding a human dimension to both men and their feelings towards each other.

Flanders’ final line sums it all up nicely: “Homer, affordable tract housing made us neighbors, but you made us friends.” In that moment, I almost think Homer might like Ned Flanders.

Nah, that’s just crazy talk.

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