“Left Behind” is about everything and nothing. To be more accurate, this record-setting episode (since every new Simpsons sets a new longevity record now) begins being about more than a half-dozen things, and then never pays off a single one. An oil-in-water quality suffuses episodes like this, the half- (at best) realized plot lines too insubstantial to register for moments past their half-assed completion. Let’s run them down, shall we?
Flanders loses the Leftorium. Flanders questions his faith. Homer reluctantly gets Flanders a job at the nuclear plant. Marge tells Homer that he needs to make more of an effort in their relationship. Flanders gets fired from the power plant for suggesting Burns give to charity. (More precisely, he suggests that Burns stop actively stealing from charities.) Flanders becomes a substitute teacher. Homer and Bart regret being mean to Flanders and make amends by helping him succeed in teaching. Lisa momentarily bonds with Todd. That’s eight distinct story turns producing not one memorable character moment. I’d call it perversely impressive if latter-days Simpsons keeps pulling off the same dubious, disspiriting trick with such regularity.
This refusal to commit to one narrative (plus B-plot) is modern Simpsons’ most maddening failing. (Admittedly, it’s a close race with a few other things in this episode we’ll get to.) The result is that an episode like “Left Behind” plays not so much like a product of desperation as of indifference to storytelling, character, series history, and world-building. Here, the episode rushes through each successive mini-plot (most of which could be viable standalone episodes should anyone care to actually make some effort) because not enough imagination is applied to making them work. Each of the threads here burn out almost before they’re done being laid out, and the episode skips to the next thread in order to hang a few new gags on it. I suppose this could result in an entertaining half-hour if the episode functioned as a solid gag-machine, but I challenge anyone to find a laugh in “Left Behind.” (The job-seeking montage sees Ned trying his hand at cruise ship dance instructor and Rolling Stone photographer, and doesn’t find a single joke in either.)
On that subject, callbacks by themselves are not jokes. Homer, visiting Flanders in his new office as head of human resources, shakes a bunch of nuclear rods out of the back of his shirt. You know, since one goes down his shirt in the credits almost every episode. When Homer gets sick of Flanders, he moans, “Why can’t he be like our neighbor on the other side who we never see?” Because... you get it. Pedantry is dull, but registering such references deployed as jokes is bloody exhausting, especially when “Left Behind” keeps shanking more potentially meaningful canonical developments with glib disregard for either continuity or character development. So when Ned abruptly doubts his storied faith upon losing the Leftorium (reduced to half a mall kiosk at this point), and he cries, “I’ve never questioned my faith until now,” I start grinding my molars. The Simpsons’ reality resets after each episode in order that its characters remain stuck in their roles, not so the writers (John Frink, Al Jean, and Joel H. Cohen here) can throw out the events of far better episodes for no discernible purpose.
Characters here react exactly according to the needs of the plot. Homer hates Flanders, Homer feels bad for Flanders, Homer and Bart help Flanders. Not one decision stems from anything that’s come before or anything any character seems to feel. Throw in Lisa’s bum-rushed journey of friendship with Todd Flanders (brushed off in a single sentence), and the forgotten Marge-Homer relationship subplot, and the overall effect is of irritation, which, one assumes, is not what the writers were going for. It was even more annoying when the show pulled out old vocal track of Marcia Wallace as Edna Krabappel to inspire Ned on his third or fourth subplot. It was a classy, touching gesture for The Simpsons to retire the irreplaceable Wallace’s signature character after the actress’ death. Tossing her in here to prop up this nothing of an episode was manipulative in the most distasteful way. Rapid, vapid, perfunctory, and glib, “Left Behind” is all the more offensive for its utter inconsequence.