It’s Martyrdom Week on The Simpsons. First, Ned Flanders beats himself up for doing something that never bothers other Springfieldians–beating the crap out of Homer. In the subplot, Lisa is in the unaccustomed position of being hated by a teacher (voiced by Tina Fey and sounding nothing like stressed-out Liz Lemon), something that ultimately gives her a bit of perverse pleasure.
At this point, Ned has a lot in common with The Simpsons itself, just plugging away and turning the other cheek to criticism, secure that he will be rewarded in the afterlife. (Or, in the show’s case, that overall reputation will wash away the nitpicking about individual episodes.) Early in the show’s run, the annoying-but-sincere Ned served as a counterpoint to the blasphemous Homer and the phone-it-in Christianity of Reverend Lovejoy. He also gave an idea of what the self-righteous Lisa might become if she weren’t so dazzled and humbled by science.
As Homer and The Simpsons have become more blatantly nihilistic, Ned seems less specifically a parody of Christian evangelicalism and more of a stand-in for any kind of belief system. (Marge has a vague appreciation of The Golden Rule, but pretty much all the other adult characters will embrace any craze that comes down the pike.) At times, he also reminds me of the infamous one-shot character Frank Grimes, from “Homer’s Enemy.” Frank seems unaware that he’s in a cartoon universe and is baffled by Homer’s invincibility; in “Black Eyed, Please,” Ned punches Homer in the eye (out of jealousy that his neighbor gets along so well with Ned’s hippie, pothead parents) and is consumed with guilt.
Homer gets socked or clocked in almost every episode of The Simpsons, and even Marge usually shrugs it off. However, Ned can’t seem to comprehend that his actions don’t really have permanent consequences. (Maybe he was traumatized by the episode “Homer’s Phobia,” in which Homer is butted by a herd of reindeer and voice actor Dan Castellaneta delivers the line “I’ve been tenderized” with unnerving fright.) Dr. Hibbert chuckles that Homer’s eye injury might impair his enjoyment of 3-D movies. “But the storytelling is finally catching up with the technology!” Homer protests. But it’s Ned who suffers from the incident. Things get even worse when Ned offers to let Homer hit him in the eye and Homer realizes, with rare perception, that being the “better man” is the best way to torture his St. Sebastian-idolizing neighbor.
Ned finally gets off the hook by helping Homer get rid of Lisa’s cruel substitute teacher; more accurately, his wife Edna figures out that transferring Bart into the class for a single day will send the sub packing. Before leaving, Ms. Cantwell explains that she just can’t stand any student as pretty as Lisa (“Bookworms like me can’t stand party girls like you!”), giving the 8-year-old a rare boost of confidence. Next week, no doubt, she’ll be out of detention and back to being a nerd, while Ned will keep his hands to himself.
The stories in this episode are not bad, but there are an unforgivable number of hacky jokes to fill out the time. “I know you feel bad about coldcocking Homer,” says Edna to her husband as they turn in for the night. “Please don’t use that word in bed!” he says with horror because, you know, Christians can’t stand any reminders of genitalia. When Principal Skinner tells Homer and Marge that he can’t get rid of Ms. Cantwell due to union rules, Homer growls, “I hate unions. There’s a guy at the plant, caused three meltdowns, and he still keeps his job.” That should have been the end of the scene, but Marge answers, “Homer, that’s you.” And Homer says, “Oh, yeah. I say ‘union,’ you say ‘power!’” That’s still not the end of the gag, but you’ve suffered enough.
- Grampa is back to pointless senility jokes, telling Lisa: “When I was a boy, teachers would rap my knuckles with a yardstick. Now you’ve got the metric system.” Lisa: “We don’t have the metric system.” Grampa: “What? Isn’t this Sweden? I’m not King Olaf?”
- Principal Skinner introduces the new teacher to Lisa’s class: “Meet your new teacher, Ms. Cantwell. Do not call her by her obvious nickname. Now I must meet with the new art teacher, Mr. Testiclees.”
- Family Guy joke of the week: Ned, trying to get Homer to hit him, says, “I’m insisting on a fisting.” Smithers suddenly appears to inquire, “What’s this about a fisting?”
- Ned has a nightmare about going to a Hell that’s custom-made to offend his sensibilities, with signs pointing to displays of Brief Nudity, Non-Jesus-y Beards, Those Monkeys With The Red Butts, and a “Massachusetts Marriage” between man and lobster. He also encounters the unnecessary celebrity cameo of the week: atheist author Richard Dawkins, who stirs a giant pot and utters the line “I’m making Catholic-saint stew!” (Would that really offend Ned? I was under the impression that he thought all papists went to Hell anyway.)
- I did like Ms. Cantwell’s response to Lisa saying she might leave Springfield Elementary and get home-schooled: “You’re bluffing. I’ve driven by your house.”