This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 31 Episode 16
The Simpsons season 31, episode 16, “Better Off Ned,” tosses off its best premise early. The episode begins with a prank, by Abe Simpson, no less, a man who has a statue in France commemorating his speedy surrender. It ends with a lesson about two prodigal sons.
The set-up to the story is very revealing about Bart’s relationship with Grandpa. The elder Simpson tells better stories when he gets real meds. The younger Simpson actually believes he would receive his father’s father’s most prized possession. But most important of all, that Abe’s snores signal tacit approval to whatever Bart’s scheming.
In this case, Bart capitalizes on Abe’s nap to borrow the dud hand grenade, which brings the episode into fairly dainty country. A full generation has passed since grade-school kids have had school shooting training ingrained in them, and Bart is very close to Trench Coat Mafia territory. He drops the grenade during an assembly on how Springfield Elementary is the most sedentary school in the state. This is not a good thing, even though Ralph cheers it even more as a bad thing. The only kids safe are the ones too obese to fit into the school auditorium. The ones inside have been sitting too long to get to the exits. It is a recipe for a deeper disaster.
It is well-known canon that Principal Skinner was a POW during the Vietnam War, and his first reaction to the crisis makes sense. He pees his pants, which is the event to start the panic. Ned saves the day, throwing himself on the grenade, but the fallout is oddly scattered. Kirk Van Houten, Millhouse’s dad, is subbing as the new school mascot, a vulture who doubles as the mascot for a semi-amateur hockey team. The guy who usually wears it got shingles and this gives The Simpsons a chance to further scar Millhouse, who sought shelter in the back end of the outfit and kept going until you don’t want to know how far. It also reveals that Nelson’s mom and Superintendent Chalmers had a thing going, something the school administrator is willing to pay good money to keep quiet.
The incident ends like the aftermath of a school shooting. There are fire trucks and grieving parents reuniting with their children, crying in the hall. It is a skewered take on the situation, but not twisted enough to mine true subversively comic or satirical value. Rather than being hauled off to some juvenile detention center, the school administrators decide to expel Bart. But Ned, once again steps in, swearing he can change the boy with the three Ps: persistence, prayer and persistent prayer. This hasn’t been tried in public schools since 1962, when the Supreme Court of New York ruled it an unfair mix of church and state.
Religious commentary returns later in the episode when the Christians throw a pride parade. Christians can finally show their faith proudly. One float boasts an “innocent priest,” implying he may be the only one in the town. In the crowd, we can see two signs: “Jews for Jesus” and “Atheists for no one,” reminding the viewers who continually tries to steal Christmas. Vendors sell crowns of thorns made from balloons for the kids. Lisa leafs through an issue of the “Christian Not Science Monitor.” Mayor Quimby officiates because “right wing ding dong‘s will keep him in office forever” for it.
Early in the episode we see, even under threat of death from a pulled hand grenade, Bart will not give in to prayer. But soon he’s singing “Amazing Grace” with an angelic voice only a bone-eared intellectual music connoisseur like Sideshow Mel can trash. Another reveling moment comes when Ned reacts to one of Bart’s pranks by threatening to draw real blood from the boy. This harks back to the time when Ned was diagnosed with emotional suppression, rendering all his most horrific and violent impulses into a litany of oodly-doodlies. Ned’s first lesson comes from Jonah, I think. Rather than give Bart some fish, Ned teaches him to fish for himself. Bart experiences a flush of emotions he likens to a downed power-line at a waterpark, but still spits in his hand before he gives a left-handed handshake to his school-board-appointed mentor.
At first, Homer sees the Flanders appointment as a win-win situation. Bart doesn’t get expelled and he doesn’t have to do anything. Ned starts to get too much credit. Besides the initial barring of his fatherly influence, no one recognizes the importance of how much Homer messed the boy up in the first place. Homer isn’t as dim as it would seem. He bemoans and moans about having to give up calling his next door neighbor “stupid Flanders” because he thinks Ned is laughing under his bushy mustache. But, carry the math and he’s right. Ned is laughing.
But there is only one character on The Simpsons who is allowed the last haw haw. After singing a sad song, Homer runs into Nelson at a garbage dump under the sign “50,000 seagulls can’t be wrong. The school bully is crying. Nobody cares about Nelson. His dad left. His mom is a drunk. His house is a trailer and all the wheels are flat. The last solid food he had was an ice cube and his TV is a milk crate with a squirrel in it. He is the perfect tool for revenge.
Nelson pegs Homer early, pointing out that Bart’s dad really has nothing to teach. But one thing Homer does know is how to manipulate people. Why should Nelson gets haircuts by hiding in the bushes when the gardener comes by when he can also get free cookies without actually giving blood. Homer edumacates Nelson on using spearmint gum as a deodorant and telling him there really is a doctor for teeth. He even shows him an easy way to break into the music industry. But the deciding factor in mentoring Nelson is that Homer is the only man who ever told the boy he’s not sleeping with his mother. This scene is more poignant because of the irony. The pair become close enough Homer dubs them Homeson.
Marge is at her most blatantly enabling self in this episode. Lisa points out what Homer is doing and Marge says it’s time to change Maggie, who she calls her little excuse. She is not getting in the middle of this. Lisa appoints herself the voice of morality and gives her father money to go see a licensed therapist. Moe breaks the moral compass by getting Homer off the topic of licenses on things like therapy or liquor sales.
Duffman gets to do Shakespeare in one highlight bit. “To pee or not to pee, there is no question,” the beer spokesman intones. Nelson’s mother also gets fleshed out in this episode. She’s got three cork boards filled with men who have disappointed her son and Groundskeeper Willis is hammering his picture on a fourth. It turns out she does care for Nelson, and she demands Homer not lie. Nelson takes it as well as can be expected. He goes out to torture his fake mentor’s kid, the one he really loves. The segment which tracks his trail is done in a new way for the Simpsons. Referencing a diner’s tabletop maze Homer and Nelson bonded to, the scene is done in animated crayon drawings.
Nelson’s actual revenge is set up like the JFK assassination. He gets through the Christian Pride Parade crowd by sporting a crucifix, which will obviously be used as a slingshot. But Bart is nowhere near the Goliath Homer is and the only surprise when he gets crushed in the palms of the praying-hand finale is how disappointing it is.
Ned has had Bart in his clutches several times during the run of the series and there is always a sense of peril the boy might lose his way and prefer the Flanderses. When Ned hung up a sign saying “gone baptizin'” in the season 7 episode “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily,” Homer took a spritz of Holy Water for the team in an effort to win back the love of his kids. Here Bart trades it all in for a quick shot of oxygen on the ambulance ride with his dad. “Better Off Ned” is sweet but feels like a doughnut where the creamy middle has been sucked out. It doesn’t quite miss the edge as much as it dulls it. The opportunities are here for sharper comedy, but the episode cuts across the surface.
The story for “Better Off Ned” was written by Al Jean, the teleplay was written by Joel H. Cohen & Jeff Westbrook, and the episode was directed by Rob Oliver. The episode was dedicated in loving memory to Max Von Sydow
Chalkboard: Bart is at a doctor’s appointment. (Written by Lisa).
The Simpsons stars Dan Castellaneta as Homer and Abe Simpson, Krusty the Clown and Groundskeeper Willie, Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson, Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson, Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson. Hank Azaria plays Comic Book Guy, Kirk Van Houten, Chief Wiggum, Professor John I.Q. Nerdelbaum Frink Jr., and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers. Pamela Hayden voices multiple parts.
The Simpsons episode “Better Off Ned” aired Sunday, March 15, on Fox.