The Simpsons’ world is wide and varied. With 30-plus years of continuity, backstory, and accumulated supporting characters to play with, the show has, as it’s slogged on, occasionally refocused on a lesser-explored corner of Springfield (state who knows). Sometimes, the exercise is fruitful, promoting a side character to deserved prominence, if only for an episode. Sometimes, it comes off more like the flailing of writers unable to mine the show’s central family milieu for the endless possibilities that—yes—still reside there.
“Todd, Todd, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?” zooms in on—spoiler alert—Todd Flanders, and comes just about this close to making its exercise in shifting narrative focus on the Simpsons’ younger neighbor, the perpetual half of one-joke, something interesting. That Rod and Todd are the happily chirping parrots of their father’s faith has long been one of The Simpsons’ go-to sources of reliable—not to say cheap—laughs. Whether wetting every bed in sight, or projected as the queasily incestuous closeted results of their father’s narrow interpretation of the world of the all-mighty, five-fingered God, the Flanders boys barely exist outside of their blithely chipper adherence to their dad’s placidly blinkered piety.
But these kids have had it rough. Apart from the hurricanes, and the terrifying moth attacks, their mom died, and died in as perfunctorily callous and meaningless way as The Simpsons has ever subjected a member of its supporting cast to. (Honestly, Maude Flanders’ death remains one of the sourest plot devices in my Simpsons memory bank, one that I think of whenever I think of where the show started to lose its way.) The fact that Homer was indirectly but not-that-indirectly responsible only casts a pall over the ongoing Job’s trials of the residents of 744 Evergreen Terrace, coloring Homer’s daily boorishness with a particularly ugly hue, if you stop to think about it. So when Todd Flanders suffers a crisis of faith, it’s only natural that his seemingly deathless neighbors figure at the heart of it. The question is whether this Todd-centric episode will truly commit to its story of a little kid finally confronting his fears and doubts about the only system of belief he’s ever known, of if it will cop out.
Things start off especially well, actually, as the show announces its intention to put the spotlight on Todd, Rod, and Neddy with the renaming of the show as The Flanderseseses, and a truly upsetting and heartbreaking dream sequence. Todd can’t remember his mother’s face, leaving his nightmare peopled with the blank visage of the one person he loves and misses most. The Simpsons themselves are left on the sidelines for the most part, but Nancy Cartwright makes Todd’s tearful confession to his father one of her most affecting performances in memory, as the boy tells Ned, “Daddy, I can’t remember what Mommy looks like.”
It’s a pretty bold move by credited writers Tim Long and Miranda Thompson, who admirably turn the episode into something akin to The Simpsons’ version of “The Zeppo,” at least for a while. Asked to speak about things he’s thankful for by Reverend Lovejoy, Todd, slunk in despair, can only whimper, “I lost my voice from crying,” and it’s not remotely played for laughs. This is a little boy who simply and wrenchingly misses his mother, a bracingly sincere and unblinking take on just what it’s like to exist in the wake of the Simpsons’ often destructive adventures, where—as in Maude’s case—being in the firing line of a gag can be a matter of life and death.
It’s a ballsy decision, and one that the episode never truly shies away from, to its credit. The Simpsons’ Springfield is an endlessly renewable resource, and the concept of handing over the show to a little-regarded supporting character to examine what it’s like to live there when your last name isn’t Simpson is the sort of narrative risk that should make any remaining Simpsons viewer’s attention perk right up. Sure, sometimes that means we get a story centered on a bar towel, but other times, we get the revelatory prism of 22 short films about what goes on outside the Simpsons’ all-encompassing purview. Here, the promise of seeing how Todd Flanders ultimately deals with the fact that his mom was taken from him by a fusillade of novelty T-shirts carries the first half of “Todd, Todd, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?”along on a pricklingly intriguing current of potential and most welcome experimentation.
Which is why the denouement, when it comes, is such a crusher. And not in a satisfying way. There’s something meaty in how Ned’s rejection of his young son’s wavering faith is portrayed at first. Ned Flanders has always been The Simpsons’ double-sided depiction of evangelical Christianity, his undeniable charity and decency making us identify with him in his perpetual abuse from Homer (and occasionally his God), while, at the same time, leaving him free to embody all the worst traits of those whose blind faith in dogma leaves them susceptible to prejudicial judgement. Here, confronted with his younger son’s shattered belief in a God who’d take his mom from him in so stupid a way, Ned is at his worst. Lecturing the boy about questioning the Lord’s real estate holdings and tax-exempt status, Ned pivots to shunting the boy off to his nemeses’ embrace, all in the hope that their heathen example will “scare religion back into my son.” (Ned instructing Rod to literally turn his back on his younger brother is about as ugly as Ned’s Christianity has been allowed to be.)
That’s fruitful territory, should the episode have been invested in mining Ned for insight into how tidy belief and inconveniently messy reality can collide. Instead, Todd’s sojourn into the belly of the secular beast comes to very little, as the eventual reconciliation of father and son coning thanks to a literal deus ex machina when the beerily bonding Homer and Ned are hit by a car. Heading to heaven and/or a shared dream sequence thereof, the neighbors experience the expected gags (God with his five fingers, Lincoln being mad about Lincoln’s Oscars snubs), while Todd finds the will to pray for his father’s recovery. Marge’s exchange with the frightened and anguished Todd is, again, the sort of thing a really ambitious Simpsons might use as springboard to something special.
Todd: I don’t think that anyone’s listening anymore.
Marge: Sometimes it can just be an honest conversation we have with ourselves.
But that’s undercut by how dismissively Marge has been treating her vulnerable houseguest all episode. Interrupted mid-snuggle with Homer, she sneers, “What doesn’t that little twerp hear?” Couple that with the episode’s treatment of Lisa, and whatever potential there was for a truly unified and thoughtful outing is shunted aside. Lisa’s been ill-served all season, and, here, Marge joins her. The Simpsons at its best blends heart and jokes into something neither treacly nor boorish, but layered and complex. Here, Lisa’s signature rational but humanistic outlook turns into a smug attempt to turn the questioning Todd onto Buddhism, with her flashing a tone-deaf thumbs-up to the boy after his outburst in church. I’m protective of Lisa Simpson, perhaps to a fault, but, once more, I call bullshit. Same goes for Marge, who, charged with a lost and cast-out child under her roof, treats Todd like nothing so much as an annoyance.
It’s all so frustrating, since this sort of bold narrative experiment is exactly the kind of thing The Simpsons could use at this point. I applaud the show for deciding to take a few chances, just as much as I dislike how feebly it follows through.
- Rod admits he accidentally watched 30 Rock. Ned counsels that it’s okay, as long as he only pays attention to Kenneth.
- While the comatose Ned is prayed for by the entire assembled town, Homer’s cheering section is only Moe, Lenny, and Duff Man.
- The ghostly Edna makes her case as Ned’s wife, but the final image is of Maude and her family, which, while fair enough, sweeps Edna K’s not-inconsiderable role in bringing Ned Flanders to life under the rug.
- Mona Simpson’s spirit gets a moment, too. Meh. There’s really no reason for the show to keep bringing Glenn Close back to water down one of the most potently lovely farewells in the show’s history.